Trip Report of Costa Rican Honeymoon (RP from TA)

Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:14 PM
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Trip Report of Costa Rican Honeymoon (RP from TA)

My husband and I had an incredible 13-day honeymoon in Costa Rica in May 2006. Our itinerary was as follows:

1 night at Pura Vida Hotel in Alejuela
3 nights at Lost Iguana Resort in Arenal
3 nights at the Monteverde Lodge and Gardens in Monteverde
5 nights at Hotel Punta Islita in Punta Islita
1 night at Xandari in Alejuela

I will be posting the report in several short posts to follow. I apologize if I am a bit long winded, but this has become my travel journal.

Pictures from our trip can be viewed at: http://tinyurl.com/ye6o4n. I will eventually also post reviews and pictures of individual hotels in the hotel review section of TA.
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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:15 PM
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Day 1

Our flight arrived around 10:00 pm, so we decided to stay close to the airport to get an early start to Arenal the next morning. We stayed at the Pura Vida Hotel in the Rain Forest Casita. The bedroom was large with one queen and one twin bed (good for holding luggage). There was also a living room/dining room/kitchenette area with a couch, small table and chairs, fridge, coffee maker, etc. The bathroom was simple but clean.

Day 2

We only had a limited amount of time to see the Pura Vida grounds in the morning because our driver showed up 40 minutes early, but the landscaping looked very nice. Two German Shepherds joined us on our tour of the grounds and my husband had fun playing with them before we had to leave. It seemed like it would be a good place to stay if you want to be based in Alajuela for a couple of days. Since we were only there for 8 ˝ hours, the large casita was more than we really needed, but it was a nice start to our trip. Since we were leaving at 7:30, it was too early to have breakfast at the hotel, but they packed “to go” breakfasts of fruit, granola bars and OJ for us.

We arranged through Leo Rodriguez to have a driver take us to Arenal with stops at Poás Volcano and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The driver was friendly and made extra stops for pictures and groceries. From the parking area at Poás, it is a half mile walk on a paved road to an overlook area that lets you look down into a crater that is 0.9 miles in diameter and 900 feet deep. Inside the crater, there is a green lagoon that spews boiling sulphurous gases. It’s pretty cool to see – when the fog lets you get a peek. We had been advised by previous travelers to arrive at Poás before 9:00 am when the fog usually rolls in. We got there around 8:00 am, but it was already foggy. We waited around for a little while, and the fog cleared enough a few times that we were able to get glimpses of the crater. We took a short side trail to see Botos Lagoon, a second crater which is now a lake filled with cool blue water. The second trail was a 30 minute hike through a beautiful forest with tons of tropical flowers.

Our second stop was at La Paz, with is connected with the Peace Lodge. They charge $25 per person to explore the grounds, which seemed a bit steep, but it was really beautiful and we had a great time. The gardens are truly gorgeous. There was one hillside covered in canna lilies (which I love) of many colors. We started by exploring the hummingbird garden, orchid garden and butterfly observatory, which are all in the central area of La Paz. The observatory is huge, with several feeding stations that let you get a close look at several species of butterflies. They also have a ranarium (frogs) and serpentarium (snakes) that we skipped. After the observatory, we went left and took the Fern Trail past the Trout Lake and through the forest to the river. We followed the Rio La Paz Trail along the river. The first two trails were lovely, and also very quiet since most visitors go straight to the Trail of Falls. There are 5 waterfalls on the Trail of Falls, and the first 2 are really spectacular.

The stop at La Paz made our first full day in Costa Rica really special. If I had it to do over, we would have taken a cab to Peace Lodge (45 minutes from airport), spent the night at Peace Lodge and had plenty of time to explore the grounds in the morning. The driver could have picked us up at 2:00 pm, and we still would have been to Arenal before 5:00 pm. The standard rooms at Peace Lodge look very luxurious, with fireplaces, hot tubs and four-poster beds. The room would have cost $90 more than Pura Vida, but we would have saved the $50 entrance fee at La Paz, so it would have only been $40 more.

We arrived at the Lost Iguana Resort by 4:00 pm and spent some time relaxing in our room. We loved our room and would happily stay there again. We had a luxury suite with a patio area that had a great view of the Arenal Volcano and a huge shower with lava rock walls and tropical plants that is open to the sky (with screens to keep out bugs). Only the first floor end units have these showers, so you have to request it and hope you get one. During our 3 nights at Lost Iguana, we spent a lot of time sitting in the leather rocking chairs on the patio enjoying the beautiful gardens and the view of the volcano. We got lucky and saw lava flow every night. From our room, we could see thin streams of lava coming down the left-hand side of the volcano. The room had wine glasses, and I recommend picking up a couple bottles of wine at the grocery store in La Fortuna and enjoying the show.

Since we didn’t have a car our first night, we ate dinner at the hotel restaurant despite some poor online reviews. Most of the entrees were in the $12 to $16 price range. The French onion soup and hearts of palm salad were very good, the steak was fine but the sauce wasn’t very exciting, the pork chops with berry sauce had an excellent sauce, but the meat was overcooked and dry.
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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:16 PM
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Day 3

Alamo dropped off a rental SUV (Daihatsu Terios) at 7:30 am. There was no extra charge for drop off and pick up at the hotel, and it was very convenient to have our own car for 2 days. We had the free breakfast buffet at the hotel, and it was very good.

The front desk made reservations for us at Sky Tram/Sky Trek for $48 pp (it is normally $55). The tram ride up the mountain is pretty slow, so you can enjoy the scenery. The zip lines coming back down were a blast. There are 2 small practice cables first, then 6 long ones. We had an amazing view of both the trees and Lake Arenal.

Since the Arenal Observatory Lodge is only a few kilometers from Sky Trek, we decided to drive over there to hike their trails. We paid $2 pp at the gate since we weren’t staying there, and the guard gave us a map of the trails. We started with the trail to the waterfall, which was very pretty. We also wanted to hike to the lava fields and asked at the front desk which trail we should take. The “Old Lava” trail, which starts near the hotel restaurant, is a very difficult trail and takes 4 hours, which was more time than we had. The man at the desk recommended we try the “New Lava” aka “Los Tucanes” trail, which is shorter and easier. The trail starts just outside the gate to the property, so we didn’t need to pay the $4 to get in, but it was nice to be able to leave our car in a lot next to the guard booth rather than just leaving it unattended on the road. We hiked through the forest for 40 minutes and then went up a flight of rock “stairs” and all of a sudden we went from lush green, dense forest to an alien landscape. There were vast fields of large black volcanic rocks. The view of the volcano was incredible – it seemed so close. The clouds had cleared in late morning, and we could see all the way to the top of the volcano. We also had an incredible view of the lake in the other direction. We were both very glad we made this hike because we felt like we really experienced Arenal.

We got back to the hotel around 4:30, threw on our swim suits, and headed to the pool. It was happy hour at the pool bar, and we discovered Cacique sours – yum! We met a fun American couple at the bar. We got to talking about trip planning online with TA and Fodors, and it turned out she was Shelliemm on TA and we had exchanged posts about Lost Iguana the week before our trip -- small world. We enjoyed the cool and warm sides of the pool for a while, and then the 4 of us headed to dinner at El Novillo, since I had read so many good reviews of it online. El Novillo was wonderful. If you are driving from LI toward La Fortuna, it is a little past Tabacón on the left side of the road. It is basically a large concrete slab with a corrugated tin roof and white plastic patio tables and chairs, but the food and view are wonderful. I had a good sized and very yummy garlic steak for $8. Dinner for 4 (4 steaks, 2 salads, 3 side dishes, 3 desserts, 7 drinks) was $81 with tax and gratuity. The only clinker in the meal was the yucca "French fries" a guide book recommended as a must try item – they were flavorless. The lava was flowing on that side of the volcano, and we had a wonderful view of the action for 2 hours.

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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:18 PM
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Day 4

We had discovered over dinner the previous night that Shelliemm and her boyfriend were also signed up for the Pure Trek canyoning tour the next morning, so we drove over together. This was our favorite tour of the trip. The only other people signed up for the tour that morning was a fun couple from California, and the 6 of us had a great time together. The three guides were very safety conscious and friendly (offering to take pictures for everyone as they went down the waterfalls). Rappelling down 5 waterfalls and one rock wall was such a thrill, and I’ve never even done rock climbing before. The first time (on a 161’ high waterfall) was scary, but by the third one I wanted to go back and start over so I could really enjoy the first 2 once I knew what I was doing. We would definitely do this again if we return to Arenal. The lunch they served us after the tour was very good. It was the most flavorful rice and beans we’ve ever had.

After lunch, my husband and I decided to head over to the Tabacón Hot Springs. My prior research had indicated that the price was $35 pp during the day, or $29 pp after 7 pm. Since I wanted to see the grounds, the plan was to go for a while in the afternoon, go do something else for a while, and go back to Tabacón at night, when the hot water would feel better. When we got there, we found out they had raised the price the week before to $45 during the day and $35 at night. I just couldn’t stand the thought of being gouged that badly to explore the grounds, especially since it was so hot and humid that the hot springs didn’t sound that appealing. We decided to just go explore the town of La Fortuna, and then enjoy the hot tub on our patio at Lost Iguana.

We had an early dinner at La Choza de Laurel in La Fortuna. The charbroiled chicken was juicy and flavorful and came with fun sides. My husband had the casado with beef, which was also good, except the waiter did not ask how he wanted his beef and he did not think to specify, so it came well done and a bit tough.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in the Arenal area and at the Lost Iguana Resort.
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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:19 PM
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Day 5

We decided to take one of the van/boat/van transfers from Arenal to Monteverde. We made arrangements for our transfers from Arenal to Monteverde and Monteverde to Punta Islita through Transport Costa Rica Monteverde S.A. because they had the best prices and accepted a deposit via PayPal so we could pay with a credit card rather than wiring cash. The driver was supposed to pick us up at 7:30 am, and when he wasn’t there by 7:50 we were pretty worried because we thought the boat was supposed to leave at 8:00. The wonderful guy at the front desk of Lost Iguana tried to reach the driver with no luck. He finally reached the boat company and found out our reservation was on the 9:00 boat, and we would be picked up at 8:45. Everything worked out fine, but it was a bit stressful and we would have rather spent the extra hour doing something besides sitting in the lobby waiting for our ride. The 30 minute boat ride was fun and we had great views of the surrounding countryside. I think my husband took around 40 pictures on the short cruise. The road up to Monteverde was pretty rough, but the driver did a very good job at minimizing the bumpiness.

We spent 3 nights at the Monteverde Lodge. The room was large (larger than we needed with 2 queen beds), but kind of boring. The room had a 1960’s lodge feel. I think it was just a bit of a let down after our fabulous room at Lost Iguana. Our first opinion was that we could have stayed someplace smaller and less expensive since our time in Monteverde was all about hiking through the cloud forests and rain forest. However, after long days of hiking through damp and rainy forests, it was so nice to be able to go back to the hotel and relax in the large hot tub in the solarium. The hotel also had beautiful grounds with water features and a sloth.

There are so many places to hike in Monteverde, so we didn’t want to lose any time. After we dropped off our luggage, we headed out to the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest for the twilight tour (5:30 – 7:30). We arrived 2 hours early so we could walk most of the trails in daylight before the guided tour. During the tour, we saw a kinkajou, an agouti, 2 porcupines curled up in a tree, frogs and tarantulas. Since it was after 8 pm when we got back to the hotel, we had dinner there. The food was good, but the portions were very small for the prices.

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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:20 PM
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Day 6

The next morning, we took a guided tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve with Carlos (arranged by Monteverde Lodge). We usually prefer to hike on our own, rather than with tour groups, but there was only one other couple in our group and Carlos was excellent. Thanks to his good spotting and the use of his telescope, we saw several howler monkeys, two quetzals, and numerous other birds.

On our way back from the forest, we had the driver drop us off near CASEM Coop, which sells crafts made by local artisans and we thought it was the best place to shop in Monteverde. We walked all the way back to Santa Elena (the main town), stopping for lunch at Stella’s Bakery (tasty, inexpensive sandwiches, meat pies and desserts) and to poke around the various galleries and gift shops. We wasted a meal at the Treehouse Café in town because it looked cool (the restaurant is built around a tree) and was convenient. We just wanted a light dinner, so we ordered nachos and a cheese plate. The cheese plate had one kind of cheese (or 4 white cheeses that tasted identical) cut into 4 different shapes. The nachos were tasty, but puny by US standards, especially for $8. The tab for the 2 appetizers, 2 beers, and 2 mixed drinks was $35 with tax and tip, so it was a rip off compared to other local offerings.
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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:21 PM
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Day 7

We did the Selvatura Walk Ways on our second morning in Monteverde. We figured $40 for 2 people wasn’t a horrible price since it included transportation from and to our hotel and the round trip fare to the nearby Santa Elena Reserve would cost us at least $16. In retrospect, we should have skipped it. The Walk Ways (elevated hanging bridges) offer a neat perspective on the forest canopy, but they are too close to the zip lines, so there are no animals in the area because of the noise. I wish we had done the Hanging Bridges in Arenal instead because I heard people were seeing wildlife there. The Selvatura shuttle back to town only runs every 2 hours, so we had to leave at 1 pm to make it back in time for our horse riding tour. After finishing the Walk Ways, we only had 2 hours left for the Santa Elena Reserve, which had some nice trails. As a side note, the gift shop at the Santa Elena Reserve had the best prices for carved wood items.

We had the Selvatura driver drop us off near Restaurante de Lucia, which is on the side street that leads to the Ecological Farm and Butterfly Garden. We had a fabulous lunch at Lucia, which is a very cute restaurant. I had the chicken a la’orange, which was a large portion of moist and wonderfully flavored chicken breast, served with a small potato and perfectly steamed mixed vegetables for $10. My husband had a nice casado for $6. We skipped dessert at Lucia because we had heard great things about Sabores Ice Cream Parlor, which was just down the street. We had wonderful ice cream for less than $1 per cone (the coconut was so yummy and creamy).

We went on a 2-hour sunset horseback riding tour with a company recommended by the hotel (I think it had caballeros in the name). It was a pretty slow-paced boring tour. After 3 days of hiking through the forest, riding horses through a less impressive forest at an only slightly faster pace wasn’t much fun. There was supposed to be a sunset view of the Gulf of Nicoya, but we couldn’t see much.

We had dinner at Sofia, which is very close to Lucia and also has lovely décor and excellent food. We started with mango-ginger mojitos, and a yummy appetizer stuffed with smoked cheese. My husband ordered pork loin in a fig sauce – we decided it was the best dish of the trip. I had a very good steak, but it couldn’t compete with the pork. It came to $46 for 2 entrees, 1 appetizer, 4 mixed drinks, tax and gratuity. We highly recommend Sofia, as well as Lucia.
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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:21 PM
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Day 8

We didn’t want to drive all the way back to San Jose to catch a plane to Punta Islita, so we hired a driver. We had been warned the roads could be bad if it was raining, but we had no problems. We were concerned after the problem with our pick-up time in Arenal, but our driver showed up a few minutes early, stopped at 3 ATMs for us so we could get cash from a machine that worked, and got us to Punta Islita in less than 4 hours.

We stayed in a 1 bedroom casita with a private patio and plunge pool, a huge four-poster bed, sitting area, and lovely tiled bathroom. I highly recommend the casita with the private plunge pool. We liked to go hop in the pool before breakfast, and then lounge there at sunset with a glass of wine. We bid for a 5 night package on Luxury Link, and for what it usually costs for 4 nights in a casita, we stayed 5 nights, plus a private dinner on the beach, 2 massages, and a walking tour were included.

This was our second trip to Hotel Punta Islita. The hotel is on a hill overlooking a crescent shaped beach. The rooms are arranged in tiers going up the hill so they all have ocean views. The whole property is beautiful. On the upper level near the main restaurant is an infinity pool that looks like it drops off into the ocean.
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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:22 PM
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Day 9

We spent several hours on the beach. There was a large rack of surf boards and boogey boards that the guy at the beach club said we could use free of charge. I think we stayed a little too long, because we were rather red the next day. We had a nice lunch at the Borrancho Beach Club.

Day 10

We were supposed to go riding in the morning, but it rained all night and it was too muddy. This was the only day of our trip that it rained more than an hour during the day. We were pretty sunburned, so we decided to sleep in and relax after all our early morning tours during the first part of the trip. We decided to go to a Yoga-Pilates class in the early afternoon. We were the only guests there, so we got a private lesson in the little thatched studio on the beach for $15 each. Afterwards, we walked down the beach all the way to the little island at the tip of the peninsula.

That night, we had our private dinner on the beach. Our waiter took very good care of us. My salmon tartare appetizer was excellent. We both had the steak entrée which was very good. We had purchased a nice bottle of red wine in Monteverde, and asked the waiter if they had a corkage policy because we thought that wine would go well with our steaks. When the bill arrived, the corkage fee was only $6.50, which was a very good deal compared to the high mark-ups on their wines. It was a lovely evening and I recommend the private dinner option.

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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:23 PM
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Day 11

In the morning, we did the 4-hour horseback ride, which I do not recommend. We did the 2-hour ride in 2001 and loved it -- you get to see great views of the property and the beach/ocean, and end with a quick run on the beach. For variety, we tried the 4-hour tour this time. It was supposed to go through a neighboring town, to another beach and then back to the property to cover basically what the 2-hour tour covers. Quite frankly, the horses did not seem up to the longer ride. My horse and my husband's horse were both breathing heavily and did not want to keep up with the guide, who kept telling us they were just lazy and we needed to kick them harder. My horse was stumbling and losing its footing periodically, which made me quite nervous. It took us over 2.5 hours just to make it to the first beach. Shortly after we left the beach to head back to PI, my horse stumbled and fell to one knee in the front. I was thrown to the right and the saddle shifted so I was hanging off the side of the horse (my left foot/ankle was centered over the middle of the horse’s back where my butt should have been – it’s a good thing I have long legs or I may have been off the horse). The horse was struggling to keep its balance and I was terrified that it would go down the rest of the way and crush my right leg or throw me. It seemed like it took forever for the guide to get off his horse and get back to help me (it was probably less than 2 minutes, but I was terrified.) There was no way I was getting back on that horse, so my husband put me on his and tried to ride mine. The horse kept stumbling, so he got off and walked it for a mile and a half until the hotel van came to get us. We never got to finish the second half of the ride – not that I wanted to then. My legs and arm were horribly bruised. I wanted to complain and ask the management to take the tour off our bill, but my husband thought we should just let it go (I think he was afraid they would put the poor old horse down).

After the horseback ride, we went straight to the spa to see if they could fit us in for our massages since I was feeling very sore. The spa was very flexible about substitutions with the spa packages. They gave us a $150 credit for the 2 free Swedish massages that came with our package. We just paid the $40 difference for the “Seduction of the Senses” package that included chocolate massages and a scented bath for two with glasses of sparkling wine. (They even let us substitute hot stone massages because they cost the same as the chocolate massage and let me pick a different scent for the bath.) They have a special couples treatment room with two massage tables and a sunken tiled tub. It was a very relaxing experience and made us feel better after the disastrous horse ride. The spa also has hot and cold Jacuzzis that you can use before or after your treatments.
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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:24 PM
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Day 12

We headed down to the beach in the morning so my husband could do some more surfing. Then we decided to walk to the village of Punta Islita. The contemporary art museum that displays work by local artists was closed, and there was not much else to see other than the cute church and school. There is a souvenir place between the hotel and the village that sells nice pottery for excellent prices. We didn’t buy any because our luggage was already overweight, but I regretted it later. We spent some time at the infinity pool and the swim up bar in the afternoon.

We ate at Cambute our last night. It is a little restaurant about 500 meters from the front gate of the hotel. We had excellent arroz con carne en salsa for $6. My husband enjoyed it so much he ordered a second serving. It was a nice change of pace from the hotel food, and much cheaper. I wish we had gone there earlier in the trip.

General note about Hotel Punta Islita: We love Punta Islita, but the activities are very expensive. We stayed at PI for 5 days, so we planned to do some activities like ATV rides there instead of Arenal because we had so much more time at PI. Unfortunately, it turned out a 2-hour tour at PI cost just a tiny bit more than a 4-hour tour near Arenal. We decided to skip the ATV tour and just spend more time at the beach.
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Old Nov 24th, 2006, 09:25 PM
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Day 13

We flew Sansa from PI back to Alajuela. The flight was on time, and they did not complain about our overweight baggage (probably because it was the off season and the flight was not completely full).

A driver from Xandari Resort and Spa picked us up at the airport. We stayed in Villa 20, which is round and has a thatched palm roof. It was a very cool room and the patio was surrounded by lovely flowering plants, including a huge patch of gorgeous wine-colored ginger. We hiked the property to see the waterfalls, and then indulged a bit at the spa. A one-hour Jacuzzi for 2 in a private jalapa was only $25, and we had a great view of the valley with San Jose in the distance. We timed it so that the sun set while we were there, so we got to see the view during the day, through sunset, and then with the lights starting to come up in the city. I also had the Selva de Osa Mud Wrap for $65 and highly recommend it. The lady was wonderful – after she applied the body wrap, she gave me a very relaxing face and scalp massage and then applied the mud to my face, too, so a mud masque was included in the price (it was a separate charge on the menus of other spas I looked at during our trip).

When I booked the hotel, I told them it was our honeymoon, so they left a complimentary bottle of white wine in our room refrigerator – perfect for the patio. The restaurant has a nice view of the Central Valley and the food was okay, although not quite as mouth-watering in reality as in the menu descriptions. The gift shop had an excellent collection of carved wood bowls, vases, boxes, etc., although they were not cheap. Between the comfortable and colorful rooms, the lovely grounds and the great spa, I would happily stay at Xandari again.

The next morning, the Xandari driver took us to the airport for our flight home. I look forward to returning to CR again someday.
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Old Nov 25th, 2006, 08:17 AM
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What a lovely report! Congratulations, and I hope your honeymoon was just the beginning of a long and happy life together. You have included some very helpful information on everything from activities to spas to rooms to restaurants! Thanks so much--a pleasure to read!
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Old Nov 25th, 2006, 08:27 AM
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Oops, I forgot the photos! Just looked at them--wonderful, all. I liked the one of Arenal late in the day with a kind of purplish haze in the sky. Punta Islita looks as gorgeous as well. Thanks for posting them!
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Old Nov 25th, 2006, 04:41 PM
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Congratulations on your marriage, what a wonderful honeymoon you had!
Thank you for posting, I loved the photos!
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Old Nov 25th, 2006, 04:59 PM
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Fantastic report and pictures!
Congratulations!
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Old Nov 26th, 2006, 01:06 PM
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Thank you all for your kind comments. I love CR and hope to return to see Mal Pais, the Osa, Manuel Antonio, etc.

My husband is clamoring to go back to Europe, so I am living on the Europe board these days, planning a trip to Paris and Burgundy for next May. (My husband makes fun of me for always planning tropical vacations when we live in San Diego.)
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