Trip Report-San Jose, Arenal, and Manuel Antonio

Apr 24th, 2009, 08:32 AM
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Trip Report-San Jose, Arenal, and Manuel Antonio

First, I just wanted to thank all of you whom helped answer my questions about my trip to Costa Rica. This board was an invaluable resource. My trip report will not be day by day but I wanted to highlight some things that might be useful to other travelers.

At the outset, I MUST give kudos to both Latin Destinations through whom we booked our entire itenerary and Swiss Travel whom was the tour operator used by LD in Costa Rica for all of our accomodations and transfers....and there were many. At each and every location, all of transfers were not only on-time, but early. The people at Swiss Travel contacted us at most of our hotels just to see if all was well with us. I would highly recommend using Latin Destinations to help book your trip. What I did was make my selections through their website for our air travel and hotel accomodations. I then called them and booked via the telephone. Once all was confirmed, we were given vouchers to use in Costa Rica. BTW..no need to pay extra for English speaking drivers. Most of our drivers spoke some English and most even acted as substitute tour guides. Also, no need for private vans or cars. Most of our transfers were by ourselves or in comfortable buses with other people. Save your money...the website will ask if you want these things which will of course add to your costs.

Also, if you are taking the plane from Arenal to Quepos (Manuel Antonio) the baggage restriction is 30lbs luggage and 10lbs carry-on. Swiss Air took some of our items while we were in San Jose becasue we would never meet the weight requirements. We had to place them in a bag and were told that we would see these items again in Manual Antonio. As promised, these items were waiting for us in our hotel when we checked in.

San Jose- we stayed at the lovely Grano de Oro our first night and it was as many said a lovely hotel. We were upgraded and were given a gorgeous room (Room 16 I believe) that came complete with a terrace garden and waterfall. This made the room feel like it had a view and was very lovely. The hotel also has a jacuzzi on the roof and free internet access in the form of a single computer in the lobby. There were also many fast food restaurants nearby. We ate dinner and breakfast twice at this hotel as we stayed here one night on our way home (our second room was not so nice- Room 1, but it was what we paid for.) Many said that the restaurant at Grano e Oro is the finest in san Jose...I thought that it was good...but not great. The prices are a bit steep but to our surprise, there appeared to be a 15-20% discount on all of our meal checks. Not sure if this was a guest discount or not because the prices were cheaper than those listed on the menu and no one ever mentioned a discount to us. The breakfast here however was great. BF was not included in the price of the hotel.

As many have said, there is little to see in San Jose, but since we got in early, we actually walked to the National Park which was about a 15 minute walk from the hotel and spent the afternoon there. The park was not the most clean in that garbage was strewn all over, but it was great to be among the people whom lived in San Jose. There was a lake and many tourist were doing zip-lines in the park.

Arenal-We arrived via transfer ..approximate 2 to 2 1/2 hour drive from San Jose. We stayed at the Magic Mountain Hotel which we LOVED!!! All of the rooms have views of the volcano with balcony's..but not the active side. All rooms overlook the pools at MM and a large stretch of grass which had cows on it every morning. The hotel has three pools..one was heated, one kids pool, and one regular pool as well as two jacuzzis. It was very close to downtown Fortuna...a $2 cab ride to town. The hotel also has what I have heard is the town's only sport's bar although it was always empty when we were there. There is also free internet access here in the form of one computer in the lobby. The bar had a pool table in it. I would highly recommend this hotel but there is one catch. the food is HORRIBLE here. Not knowing any better we ate the buffet dinner at the hotel for $15 a person the first night. The place was practically empty which should have been a sign. The food was not fresh or covered as they had the doors open and flies were buzzing all around. Skip this meal. Breakfast which was included in the price of the hotel was acceptable, but also not my favorite. They did have an omlette bar, some hot food as well as cereal, yogurt, breads, etc. I loved this hotel and would stay again, but they need to work on their food issues. We ate at the Lava Lounge which was great and another restaurant downtown that was good whose name I will provide later.

Tours in Arenal

Volcano Hike/Ecotermales Hot Springs Tour through Sunset Tours- we loved this. We started off in the afternoon with a hike through the national park. Our guide was great at spotting monkey's and other wild-life...I think we saw three different types...but from a distance. We then re-boarded the bus and we were taken to a location to see the lava fall as the sun went down. The bus then dropped off everyonbe at the various hot springs. As I said, we went to Ecotermales which was FANTASTIC!!! The chicken dinner here was the best I had in Cost Rica. There are 5 pools...one hotter than the next. I was able to get into the hottest, which was not bad at all. The only issue is that it seems that Ecotermales closes the earliest of all of the hotsprings and we had to leave at 9:00pm...we did not arrive until nearly 7pm. We wanted more time. Also, the bus dropped off the folks at Tabacon first although they could stay much later. We waited inside of Tabacon while the guide got those folks settled in and from what I could see, Tabacon was absolutely lovely.

Cano Negro Tour-Sunset Tours- Okay...don't kill me...but we HATED this tour. I know that I have read only good things here about this tour, but we found it to be the biggest waste of time as well as time drain. First of all, it took two hours to get to the river. They did stop at the Iguana Cafe were we saw endless numbers of iguanas. That meant 4 plus hours in travel time alone. Also, maybe it is the New Yorker in me, but this tour felt like the biggest hustle going. Bottom line...the tour guide would "spot" a bird, monkey, caymen (crocodile like creature) etc and the boat would then pull over, we would crane our necks to get a picture...sometimes from ridiculous distances...and this went on and on for a few hours. I wanted OUT!!! LOL Our tour guide even stopped once, let us off the boat, and we spent 1/2 hour in the forest taking pictures of storks. In light of the wild-life that we later saw up close and personal in Manual Antonio, this tour seemed that much more ridiculous. The tour included lunch which was very good. IMHO...this is a tour that can be skipped...especially if you are going to Manual Antonio. Frankly, I saw more wildlife with my tour guide on the Volcano hike.

Manual Antonio- By far, my favorite place. We stayed at La Mansion Inn. I can't imagine a more beautiful or classy hotel. I'm not sure how I lucked up into this hotel (actually Si Como No was booked), but it is ranked #1 in Manual Antonio on Trip Advisor and is actually a few dollars less or similarly priced as Como Si No (also lovely) I think. Like most of the hotels in Manual Antonio, it is in the mountains. The views at this hotel are UNPARALELLED. Period. BTW,...they do not allow children under 12 at this resort.

Now for the best part...we were upgraded to the Presidential Suite!!! The best room in the hotel with the best view in the hotel. It seems that they were over-booked and we were the lucky beneficiary. I was stunned. Especially since a real President (Clinton) and other very famous people have stayed here (Pictures at entrance.) We were greeted with champagne and brought to our room. It was all that you could imagine including two bathrooms, a master bedroom as big as my house, as well as full dining room and living room also as big as my house and a private back entrance to the pools. I THINK most of the other rooms were also ocean view. The view from our balcony and the rooms I saw, look directly onto the ocean and provide a perfect view of the National Park as well as beach beside it. This property has many secluded areas with chaise lounges and chairs to take in the views. The hotel also has a shuttle bus that will take you downtown and to the beach/national park.

They have a pool and two jacuzzis as well as a gym and billards room. They also had this great room that they called a VIP room which had a computer for free access, a TV, couches and WiFI access. They also have a bar that they call the "Bat Cave" and a restaurant. The hotel only has 22 or so rooms so the restaurant only takes dinner reservations in advance. If you walk-in, the menu is limited. We had dinner here and it was okay. The breakfast here is fabulous. The breakfast room is a garden terrace overlooking the ocean and surrounded by lush greenery. There were birds and even iguana's around. Breakfast was included and unlike most places that include breakfast, it is not a buffet. You order from a full menu and can order what you like which meant that the food was freshly prepared. The only caveat is that although breakfast is "included," you must pay the 10% service and 13% taxes. You might also add on an additional service fee. IMHO...this was well worth it and breakfast was among our favorite pleasures here.

Now..being nosy...I just had to go to Si Como No to make a comparison. All I can say is that those of you staying at Si Como No will be equally delighted. I did not see the rooms there, but the views at Si Como No were also fabulous but I give the nod to La Mansion Inn on this as we looked directly onto the ocean and had a complete view of the National Park. On the other hand, I think that Si Como No is better located in that it was located on a strip near and with other hotels and stores. La Mansion Inn is off of the main road and a difficult walk do to the many winding streets. Bottom line...you will be happy at either location.

We ate at two very good restaurants here..La Avion a restaurant with great views and built from the parts of a real carrier flight plane that I think was shot down. We also ate at a wonderful restaurant in Quepos whose name I have to get but that is owned by the owners of the Milagros cafes. It was my favorite meal in Costa Rica apart from that I had in Ecotermales.

Beaches

All I can say is that beaches are gorgeous here. There is a beach just outside of the National Park. On the street above that beach are vendors selling their wares as well as several restaurants. You can rent 2 beach chairs and a umbrella here for $10 a day. We got to this beach after 4pm one day and were able to rent the chairs and umbrella for $4 to watch the sunset....something I suggest. It was gorgeous. This beach has good waves and many people surfed here.

National Park

There is a $10 fee per person to enter. They only allow 650 people per day and close at 4pm so get there early in high season. You can hire a guide when you get to the park, but IMHO, it is really not necessary. There is wildlife everywhere in this park. You take about a 15 to 20 minute hike to the first and seemingly most popular beach. On the way there, we saw sloths and white-faced monkeys which I think Frommer noted were as numerous as the tourists. This only fueled my anger about wasting the day on that cano Negro tour...but I digress.

As great as this was, once we got to the first beach, we saw crowds gathered at trees near the beach...there were monkeys EVERYWHERE!!! Up close and personal. You could reach out and touch them. We got great pictures. I can't even describe just how many were around. They would climb down from the trees and steal the food of folks sitting on the beach. People would also feed them so this might be why they were everywhere. We also saw iguanas, bats and a scary looking raccoon that was as big as german shepard just crossing the hiking path. Some saw deer on their hikes. It was like being on the Animal Kingdom.

The beach was stunning. No waves at this beach and the water was warm. they do not rent out chairs or umbrellas inside the park so bring your towels. Don't know if you can bring chairs, etc. There was a second beach a few minutes away that was more secluded but also gorgeous. This beach had more waves.

White-water Rafting Tour-Iguana Tours- Well..I was scared out of my mind to do this tour but I am so glad that I did. This might have been my favorite tour in Costa Rica. It was about an 1 hour to 1 1/2 trek up into the mountains to get to the top of the river. We were on the Savere (not correect spelling) River which provided stunning scenery. We did a class 2/3 trip. I have never done white water rafting but after the first few times over the rapids, I was fine. Our guides were EXPERT. I can't stress this enough. We saw a couple and their children on the rapids with another tour company and they were stuck. After watching our guide, then and only then did they become unstuck. This tour included a light breakfast of eggs and toast as well as lunch. Highly recommended.

All in all..Costa Rica was fabulous, and thank you all for your help.
classc_1 is offline  
Apr 24th, 2009, 09:03 AM
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I forgot to add two things.

SkyTram Tour/Canopy Tour- this was a great tour and provides for great photo opportunities. We did not do the zip-line here, but if I were to, it would be here. The views were stunning and it looked very safe although it was very scary looking as you fly over a lake and between mountains. We watched others do it. To my great shame, I watched 70-plus year olds do what I was too scared to do!!! LOL Basically, you go up to the top of a mountain in a tram. Just one stop on the tram which surprised me. Everyone gets off. You can take pictures of the Arenal Lake and Volcano from here. You can opt to either do the zip-line from here. They have two short test runs. If you do not like it...you can come back. After the second run...you must follow through. Those who opt out of doing the zip-lining, are given what is supposed to be a 20 minute hike through the park...ours was much longer and then brought back to the tram station for the ride down. Once you come off of the tram or finish zip-lining, you can go to the Butterfly garden which is also included.

The other thing that I wanted to mention was that if you do opt to do the Cano Negro tour, make sure that the tour actually goes to the Wildlife Refuge. It seems that many go down another river which does not include the Refuge. This might explain some of the differences in prices for these tours.
classc_1 is offline  
Apr 24th, 2009, 09:20 AM
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When we did Cano Negro, we did the cheaper tour, and we still saw tons of wildlife. I was curious if the water level was low when you went because that seems like it might affect the animals. We've gone twice during rainy season and seen sloths, capuchins, howlers, caimans, bats, birds, etc. Sorry you did not have a great experience there. The water level was high when we went, so wondering if that makes a difference.

How was the Sky Trek hike? Did you see much there? We haven't done that one yet. We thought the same thing about the Eco Termales chicken dinner - it was surprisingly one of the best meals we had in CR! Glad you had such a great trip!
volcanogirl is offline  
Apr 24th, 2009, 12:54 PM
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Thanks volcanogirl and thank you for your help in planning my vacation.

As for the water...I think that you are likely correct in that the water levels were likely low. I don't know for sure but it didn't rain much while we were there a week and a half ago. I know for sure that the water levels were low in MA as our guides for our water-rafting trip said so and were happy that it rained the day before.

As for the hike on the Skytram tour...I liked it but like I said, it's supposed to be 20 minutes long. IMHO...you are not missing much. We really didn't see any wildlife. We did however see many butterflies and there was one spot that made for a nice picture of the volcano. I did enjoy it though. Far better was the afternoon Volcano hike that was combined with the Ecotermales visit. We really saw and learned a lot.
classc_1 is offline  
Apr 25th, 2009, 03:24 AM
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Which tour company did you use for Cano Negro? I know we didn't get out and walk anywhere. It's interesting to get your opinion - it's the opposite of so many regarding Cano Negro versus the wildlife at Manual Antonio. I've read many comments about how the wildlife at M.A. are so used to humans that it's almost Disney-like - getting into backpacks, purses, waiting for food whereas at Cano Negro they are in their own environment without the close up human contact. I think it's one reason that I haven't gone to M.A., but it is always refreshing to hear another perspective.

I thoroughly enjoyed Cano Negro, but after having been spoiled by three days of intense viewing at Tortuguero, it didn't rate #1 on my favorite list. But I think for the most part it is the best wildlife viewing in the Arenal area. Our La Fortuna hotel was full after two nights and we had moved to Tilajari for another two nights, so that knocked off an hour each way to Cano Negro making it a much shorter trip.

You sure lucked out on your upgrade at La Mansion - wow! The beaches sound fabulous. Sounds like you had a fantastic trip and thanks for taking the time to share.
colibri is offline  
Apr 25th, 2009, 04:28 AM
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We didn't walk around or get out of the boat at Cano Negro either; we also didn't stop and see the iguanas - it sounds like you just had a different experience. I think it's funny you don't want us to kill you for not liking it! It's not like you said something bad about Bosque del Cabo which would be true blasphemy - lol!

col, we thought the animals in MA were way too influenced by humans just like you did. We saw one little monkey close enough to touch and 20 people surrounding it with tons of flash bulbs going off. The wildlife is very up and close, but we like a more natural setting like you do.

class, I'm glad you had a good volcano hike; we had a lot of rain during ours so it wasn't that great. We went to the great lava viewing spot, and it just started pouring. Luckily they took us to Eco T, and that saved the night for us.

Great job with the upgrade! We got upgraded in MA too, and it was so awesome. We had a big fancy suite with a private entrance and balcony and great views - I could get used to that!
volcanogirl is offline  
Apr 25th, 2009, 12:48 PM
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Colibri....your description of the scene at the MA national park cracked me up!!! It was indeed a little Disney like but it was...at least for us...incredible too. In Arenal, it seemed like I spent a lifetime just trying to spot a friggin monkey, so when we got here and saw that scene, it didn't turn us off. However, for a purist...I can totally see how they might be turned off.

Personally, I felt like I was in their xnatural habitat as there were monkeys swinging, bats sleeping and igunanas crawling around. I was AMAZED that folks actually laid down underneath trees on the beach as creatures were coming from all directions. That was a little too real for my tastes. Let me tell you, when that clock got close to 4pm...we hightailed it out of there. LOL I was like honey...we can wash the sand off later!!! I did not want to spend the night with all of these creatures!!!

As for the tour company I used for Cano Negro, this is one tour that I had the hotel book and I am pretty sure that it was Sunset Tours, but I will have to check the voucher.

Volcanogirl..I would not dare speak ill of Basque de Cabo!!! I wish I had read up more on this spot before. It sounds lovely.
classc_1 is offline  
Apr 25th, 2009, 01:09 PM
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Thanks for taking the time to post a trip report. It sounds like a wonderful time overall. Always nice to hear people's experiences at hotels too that aren't mentioned as often. I know that I've seen packages for La Mansion on Luxurylink.com, so I assumed it was pretty posh.

As for Cano Negro, it's just not for everyone I guess. I've been in several areas where I've seen plenty of wildlife, especially Osa, but Cano Negro was still a great experience for me. The drive didn't bother me at all as I enjoyed seeing the countryside. We went with Aventuras Arenal and they are known to have excellent guides as well as Sunset Tours does. We did stop at the bridge to see the Iguanas, and we got off the boat at the Nicaraguan border to take some photos. Even though there weren't flocks of birds, we did see a great variety. I imagine the seasonal migrations play a big role though.

Your rafting trip on the Savegre sounds great!
hipvirgochick is offline  
Apr 25th, 2009, 01:40 PM
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Thanks for the trip report! It sounds like a wonderful trip. I was wondering about Magic Mountain...and La Mansion sounds wonderful! I somewhat agree with your take on Cano Negro...if you're only going to be in Arenal, it's probably your best bet for wildlife. When we visted, it was our first sighting of monkeys, sloths and so many birds. We were the only two on our tour and we left a very rainy Arenal to go to a beautiful day on the tour. So we did enjoy it quite a bit. However, it's not a tour I would likely do again. I agree that it was quite a long day, but it worked out well for us. On our following trip, we went to MA, never visited the actual park, but just at our hotel (Tulemar) and on the Mangrove tour, a short drive - we saw much more wildlife than on the Cano Negro tour.

The rafting sounds fun! I'm glad you tried it and enjoyed it!
ShellD is offline  
Apr 25th, 2009, 04:14 PM
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Thanks for the report, classic. Sounds like you really enjoyed Costa Rica (it would be hard not to, imo!). Excellent luck getting upgraded at La Mansion!

Thanks for sharing your honest opinions. I'm one of the people who always recommends Cano Negro because I happened to really enjoy it and saw my first monkeys and sloths there.

It is true that we saw more wildlife (and closer up) at MA. I really enjoyed MA and frequently recommend it as a destination, especially for first-time CR visitors. I think the area does face a conundrum, however; how to balance tourism vs conservation. It always pains me to hear about people feeding the animals in the national park. It's just not good for the animal's well-being. I think I've been spoiled by the Osa Peninsula like many of the other posters here. You'll have to head down that way if you ever make a second trip to CR, classic.
cmerrell is offline  
Apr 27th, 2009, 03:08 PM
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Thanks all for the wonderful comments and your take on things...only problem is...now I want to go back!!!
classc_1 is offline  
Apr 27th, 2009, 04:57 PM
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We just got back from Manuel Antonio And it was the best part of our Costa Rica trip! We dined out sevral times and found Marlintinis to be the best restaurant of our 10 day Costa Rica trip. What a gem this place was. The food is to die for and the waiters where some of the nicest we had all week!
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Apr 27th, 2009, 05:13 PM
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Advertising is a no-no worldhopper.
volcanogirl is offline  
Apr 30th, 2009, 03:02 PM
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I was interested in the Cano Negro comments. I was also unimpressed by the tour. We did have a great guide, stopped for the iguanas, saw caiman up close, but the rest of the wildlife was spotted from a great distance. This year we went to Tortuguero and the river tour and wildlife was much better!
We loved the abundance of wildlife at MA. One disturbing event involved the monkeys at the beach. A group of young people were playing with a monkey hanging from a branch. At one point they lifted up a sleeping newborn baby (for a video) and the monkey was pulling at its clothes. A park employee was watching with a disgusted look on his face, but didn't try to stop the action.
The highlight of our MA hike (without a guide) was when 12 anteaters came out of the underbrush and one by one paraded across our part!
rpowell is offline  
May 5th, 2009, 07:29 PM
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Rpowell...I wonder if we were on the same Cano negro tour? LOL As for those folks lifting up a newborn baby so close to one of those monkeys...all I can do is shake my head. The monkeys in the National Park seemed pretty aggressive. I would have never done something like that.

Good for you seeing the anteaters...that is one animal we did not see at MA.
classc_1 is offline  
May 5th, 2009, 09:59 PM
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That's the one thing about MA - in most places in CR you could never get close enough to pick up a monkey; it isn't natural. The reason you can in MA is because the animals are constantly fed by people and put in unnatural situations. I think it's sad that the park employee wouldn't try to stop something like that. I'm glad to hear good things about Tortuguero - we're planning on going there for our next trip.
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