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Trip List by Renee

Costa Rica from all views - from luxury to budget

Jun 3, 2007  4 trips in past 3 years -- 3 of those as adventure race volunteer, 1 as pure vacationer, and 2 of those with children ages 9 and 12.
4.5 of 5 stars based on 12 votes

Cross country tour of Costa Rica with comments about my favorite places.

  • 1. Costa Rica
    Costa Rica, Central America

    I have fallen in love with Costa Rica and created this GoList to share my enthusiasm with fellow travelers. I have found it to be a generally safe country to viist and very friendly.

    In 2005 and 2006 I went with a friend to help as a volunteer for a "coast to coast" adventure race called the Coast to Coast Challenge that my husband was doing. We had a chance to see the country in a very unique way -- meeting lots of Ticans and seeing a lot of out of the way places. We loved it so much that my husband and returned in 2006 with our kids (then 8 and 11) and his parents. In 2007, we came for 2 weeks with our kids, combining one week of adventure race and one week of vacation. One thing surprised me -- I had told my children that the first week was all about the race. It would be a lot of sitting, waiting, boredom, moving around etc. The 2nd week would be the fun week -- the "real" vacation at the resort destination. After the trip was over -- it was a revelation. We actually enjoyed the first week more! The kids (and I) felt like we were really seeing Costa Rica -- visiting small villages that rarely (if ever) see tourists, going grocery shopping, visiting schools. They loved it! We also had a guide, which relieved me from the burden of driving terrible roads and finding my way around -- I'm only so adventurous. This experience has made me think twice about planning future family vacations.

    A word about me and my family. I can be content with a variety of accommodations -- from high-end luxury to moderate to budget. The important thing for me is ambiance. I am not a "big resort" person, and do not take an interest in night life or shopping. I gravitate to the outdoors, good food, and a local experience. So keep this in mind as you read my recommendations! We have also done a lot of traveling with our kids, so they are used to going to new places.

  • 2. Grano de Oro Hotel
    Hotel Grano de Oro San Jose, San Jose, San Jose Metro

    In downtown San Jose, this luxury boutique hotel had lots of character. Stayed here with 3 generations (kids and grandparents) on our way in and out of the country. The neighborhood is not great, and I don't prefer cities -- but for a quick stopover it was perfect. Good service, nice rooms, great restaurant, and a rooftop garden jacuzzi.

  • 3. Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn
    Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation & Inn, Santa Barbara, Province of Heredia

    Wow! A luxury boutique hotel that is also very eco-friendly. It is a working organic coffee farm on the outskirts of San Jose. We only stayed here one night before flying home to CT (only 20 minutes from the airport), but it seems like a good base from which to tour central Costa Rica. We were with our kids (and met another family there) -- and they loved it, although it seems more of an adult getaway. The architecture is reminiscent of Antonio Gaudi. We stayed in a 2 bedroom Villa that was small but positively charming. Family style gourmet restaurant with an unbelievable kitchen. Very relaxing -- great countryside views of the lights of San Jose. Good honeymoon spot!

  • 4. Hotel Ave del Paraiso
    Hotel Ave del Paraiso, San Pedro, Province of San Jose

    This was a nice moderately priced hotel in the San Pedro section of San Jose. We stayed here at the start of a Coast to Coast adventure race -- meaning a 5 day continuous race of biking, trekking and kayaking that my husband participated in. What surprised me about the modest hotel rooms were their tranquility despite being in a fairly congested area. The hotel also had easy walking access to the San Pedro mall, the university, and restaurants. The rooms were basic, but clean, and I would not hesitate to recommend it.

  • 5. Casa Conde Apartotel
    Casa Conde Hotel & Suites, San Jose, San Jose Metro

    We stayed here 2 different years both before and after the race (once with kids). This hotel is its own gated enclave with a central courtyard and small apartments. Each apartment has a small kitchenette and sitting area, bathroom and 2 very small bedrooms. It is clean and comfortable and the restaurant is pleasant. It is best suited to groups -- we noticed that they had a lot of groups (school trip, tour groups, business groups). This is not necessarily my recommendation as a destination, but if you are stopping in San Jose with a group, this is worth checking out.

  • 6. Hotel Milvia
    Hotel Milvia, San Jose, San Jose Metro

    I stayed here with a friend halfway through the race and it was welcome respite. A former home turned hotel, it is small, moderate hotel with a lot of character. Although we did not roam at night, we felt very comfortable walking through the neighborhood as 2 women during the day, and there was easy access to stores and restaurants. I would love to stay here again when I can really enjoy it (we arrived after 2 days without sleep).

  • 7. Hotel Punta Islita
    Hotel Punta Islita, Punta Islita, Province of Guanacaste

    We stayed here for pure vacation with our children (then 8 and 11) and parents in their late 60's. We loved it. In reading reviews ahead of time, it sounded more like a honeymooner destination, so I wondered how it would be for the kids. I was pleasantly surprised. There were many families there and lots of children in that middle age range (7 - 14). We stayed in one of the 3 bedroom villas. The villa was luxurious although very tasteful (lots of terra cotta and white) and each bedroom had its own bathroom and view of the Pacific. The main room was a little large -- not particularly cozy -- but we got used to it. The house also had its own small pool and thatched covered patio, and the howler monkeys congregated in the nearby trees. Be aware that the hotel is spread out and it is very hot. (We were there in mid-April). Since we were in a Villa, we had use of a golf cart to get back and forth -- but with 6 of us we needed to coordinate a bit. The beach was very nice (although there can be jellyfish at times -- my 8 year old got a bad sting). The beachside restaruant and pool were great. We took advantage of many of the activities (spa, canopy tour, ATV tour etc.) and they were all enjoyable with a very nice staff and impeccable English. Punta Islita also has a very commendable relationship with the town of Islita which we admired. Be aware that Punta Islita is very remote -- we arrived by car -- there are stream crossings which were not a problem in the dry season. We flew back to San Jose from a tiny grass strip runway -- this was the way to go if you don't mind small planes. Don't miss going to the local restaurant Cambute in Islita. Be patient -- it is a small family operation -- but the local food was delicious, and the atmosphere fun and genuine, especially with the big screen TV showing soccer matches.

  • 8. La Paloma Lodge
    La Paloma Lodge, Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula

    We stayed here in March 2007 with our children (9 and 12) after the adventure race for a pure vacation. It is in Drake Bay. La Paloma Lodge is a high-end jungle lodge that is "off the grid" -- they create all their own electricity so there is no AC. We stayed in one of the 2-story ranchos -- very comfortable, open-air accommodations. You are truly in the jungle here -- we were awakened one morning at 6:30 a.m. by a band of capuchin monkeys cavorting on the roof -- hanging down over the eaves to look at us and jumping back and forth to the overhanging trees. They were still there an hour later when we left for breakfast. It is quite a hike down to the beach, although once there, the waves were fun to play in (be aware that the tide moves quickly and the waves are strong, so be careful if yuor kids are young and/or not strong swimmers. The pool was small but lovely -- completely shaded which was important because it is HOT and humid on the Osa Peninsula. All the meals are served family style and you have a choice of two entrees. There are several activities to try -- we snorkeled at the Isla del Cano (this was fun -- especially with the kids as they had a chance to see turtles and sharks (don't worry -- they weren't the dangerous kinds). We missed out on the Corcovado hike (my daughter came down with a stomach bug -- it was not food-related -- something spread by a guest), but I hear that trip was phenomenal -- but very hot. While we generally enjoyed our stay here -- we had just come from an incredible cross country trip where we spent time with Costa Ricans and were truly off the tourist track -- so landing at La Paloma Lodge, where we essentially spent time almost exclusively with other tourists, was a disappointment in a way. It felt a little too much like camp -- too scheduled. Also, be aware that this is a remote location! We arrived by flying into Sierpe, taking a bus and a 1 1/2 hour boat ride through canals and the open ocean to arrive at La Paloma's dock! On the way home, we took a short boat ride and then a short vehicle ride to the Drake Bay airport -- again a grass strip with a plane that seats about 20. One more thing -- don't miss the bug lady tour! She does a night tour right on the property. We saw sloths, kinkajous, frogs and every kind of bug and spider imaginable, along with great commentary.

  • 9. Hotel Villas Gaia
    Hotel Villas Gaia, Playa Tortuga, Osa Peninsula

    We stayed here in 2007 (with kids) for the start of the adventure race. This is a lovely small moderate hotel with a dozen cabins on a jungly hillside. The rooms were colorful and comfortable. The pool has a great view of the Pacific. The restaurant was a typical, open air restaurant. There was a window AC unit in the room and a ceiling fan, and there was hot water. All in all, it was charming.

  • 10. Guacamaya Lodge
    Guacamaya Lodge, Playa Junquillal, Province of Guanacaste

    We stayed here at the end of the 2006 race. My friend and I arrived the night before and found a room at the Hotel Hibiscus (but I couldn't find a link in TripAdvisor). Hotel Hibiscus was a small (5 room) hotel with a very friendly German owner. It is on the main road (which is lightly traveled -- but you still hear the cars go by). We had just come from 5 days of pitching tents along the road -- so to us this modest place was heaven. It is all in the perspective! The next night, with the racers back, my husband and I found a room at the Guacamaya Lodge. Perched on the hillside -- it was a lovely post-race location. We did not have a chance to try out the pool or restaurant, but it seemed like a nice, moderate hotel. and again, just sleeping in a bed was welcome.

  • 11. Pacuare River
    Pacuare River, Costa Rica, Central America

    My absolute favorite place to go is the Nido del Tigre camp owned by Coast to Coast Adventures on the Pacuare River. We have been there 4 times. In 2005 when we went to CR for our first adventure race, we did a whitewater rafting day trip just for fun our first day in Costa Rica. The Pacuare River is special. The river is an unbelievable blue-green color set in the rain forest. We saw toucans, oro pendola birds, blue morph butterflies -- the list goes on. We stopped at the Nido del Tigre camp just to look around. The grounds were impeccable. It has a series of platform tents nestled along the riverbank. There are two "ranchos", each with cooking facilities, sitting areas with chairs and hammocks, and picnic tables for eating. Coast to Coast has built incredible outdoor shower facilities with running water, and bathroom areas with flush toilets! Of course there is no electricity, so at night, candles provide light. I had a chance to come back again during the race the first year and stay overnight (the camp was the starting point for the whitewater section of the race). We loved it so much we did a 2-day rafting trip for vacation with the kids and grandparents, and then the kids and I stayed there for 2 nights in 2007, as the camp was again a checkpoint during the race. We had made arrangements ahead of time to sponsor a local school, so we had a chance to visit this school. This was one of the top highlights of the trip for both myself and my children. We also had a chance to hike to a lovely waterfall in a stream that is a tributary to the Pacuare. Be aware that, while there is a road down to the camp, it is terrible (we had a local driver navigating for us this year). The best way to visit is as part of a rafting trip. If you like the outdoors and camping -- don't miss this!

  • 12. Tortuguero
    Tortuguero, Province of Limon

    In 2007, the race finished north of Tortuguero at a "resort" called Villas al Mar. Although I cannot find a link thorugh TripAdvisor, I mention this place because it was a lovely, small resort (although definitely not luxury) that seems like a destination for locals. We stayed here 2 nights (with kids) while we waited for teams to finish. You get there by canal boat, and the hotel pathway extends across a swath of lawn, dotted with "cabins" and hammock resting huts, a restaurant, pool, all the way to the Caribe. I again stress that this is not a luxury spot -- our team had the only 3 rooms that had hot (electric) showers and AC units. But the atmosphere was very relaxed, the pool was clean, the food was fine and the people were very nice. I don't know how well they speak English (I tried to speak Spanish everywhere). Be aware that the Caribbean is not good for swimming -- the water is very rough with lots of riptides.
    We went into Tortuguero for a day trip by boat -- which was interesting -- saw monkeys and toucans and giant iguanas in the trees.

    Also -- couldn't find a link to it in TripAdvisor -- but the first year, the race ended in nearby Parismina at the Cariblanco Eco-Lodge. Now -- I can tolerate budget places -- but this was unbearable. The rooms were literally a concrete bunker with no windows except in the bathroom. The only other window was a high window overlooking the central hallway, which was lit with bare bulbs, so that even when you turned off the room light, the bare bulb would glare down at you. It was a zillion degrees and the only relief was a small fan. The only redeeming thing about the place was the outdoor restaurant, where we spent every waking moment.

  • 13. Montana de Fuego Hotel
    Hotel Montana de Fuego Resort & Spa, La Fortuna de San Carlos, Arenal Volcano National Park

    We stayed here as part of our family vacation. In general, La Fortuna is not my kind of place. It is such a big tourist destination that the road is lined with hotel after hotel. Seeing the Arenal volcano is worth it -- but unless you like big resorts, I would put some effort into finding a smaller hotel in the area. Montana de Fuego was a long series of suites with a decent view of Arenal. The architecture of the suites was odd, and while the rooms were comfortable they did not make us feel particularly "at home". We did the Tabacon thermal springs and dinner. It was way too touristy for me -- a huge series of big thermal pools with tons of people. Very Disney-like. And the food was nothing special -- although I am not a big fan of buffet food in general. If you like Disney -- you might like it here -- and your kids might too. But if not, I hear there are smaller hotels in the area that also have a hot springs experience. I would seek one of these out. Our favorite day trip from La Fortuna was a canoe trip on the Rio Penas Blancas. It was just the 6 of us (kids and grandparents) and a very knowledgeable guide. an easy river to canoe with LOTS of wildlife -- monkeys, bats, lizards -- you name it. The Hanging Bridges were worth the visit, as was the waterfall near La Fortuna, which is a short hike down a steep trail to a gorgeous swimming hole. It is a very popular spot, however, so be prepared for crowds.

  • 14. Hotel San Bosco
    San Bosco Inn, La Fortuna de San Carlos, Arenal Volcano National Park

    In 2006, the race passed thorugh Arenal. Though I was camping, I visited some parents who were staying here to sit by the pool and take a shower. Although described as "top end" in my guidebook -- it is not like the more luxury resorts favored by Americans along the road to Arenal. However, if I had a chance to come back -- I would avoid the "resorts" and stay here. Why? The rooms were perfectly clean -- the grounds were pleasant, and it is in downtown La Fortuna where you can walk to the town green, to the ice-cream shop and to local stores.

  • 15. Volcan Turrialba Lodge
    Volcan Turrialba Lodge, Turrialba, Province of Cartago

    We stayed here during the race the very first year. We arrived at 1:30 in the morning, and had to plug in the electric radiator for warmth! This place is definitely off the beaten track -- not a luxury place, but so quaint! The road to get there is pot-holed and challenging. It is not luxury -- but it had so much character -- which I appreciated even more after going to Arenal the next year. My friend and I took a long walk up the road toward the volcano -- the landscape is amazing. The one thing I regret not having time for is taking the horseback ride up to the crater rim. I would come back with my kids for that adventure.

  • 16. El Nido del Tigre Camp on the Pacuare River

    I have stayed at this camp several times now, and it looks just like the pictures. I describe it in more detail under #11 "Pacuare River" (before I learned how to add my own URLs to a GoList). We are heading back to Costa Rica for race #4 in April 2008, and will plan to go a day early just so we can visit the camp again. Loved it.

  • 17. Hotel Casa Turire
    Hotel Casa Turire, Turrialba, Province of Cartago

    This is a lovely, small but upscale hotel on the outskirts of Turrialba. We stayed here one night during the 2008 Coast to Coast. The hotel is on a lake (not for swimming), the rooms are lovely and the pool was nice, too.

  • 18. Hotel Wagelia
    Hotel Wagelia Turrialba, Turrialba, Province of Cartago

    This small, modest hotel is right in downtown Turrialba, so it is very convenient for exploring the city on foot. The rooms are very basic, but adequate. The restaurant was fine for meals.

  • 19. Turubari Tropical Park

    Botanical gardens and canopy tour. We stopped here on our drive to the Pacific coast. We were a carload of 5 people without a reservation, and we had no problem getting a canopy tour guide arranged quickly. The facility is very clean and new, the guides were excellent and the zip lines were amazing. I believe they have one of the longest or highest zip lines in the country -- can't recall exactly.

  • 20. Hotel Playa Bejuco
    Hotel Playa Bejuco, Esterillos Este, Province of Puntarenas

    We stayed here at the end of the race in 2008. It was a very pleasant and moderately priced small hotel. The beach is a block away. The rooms were clean and comfortable with a very nice shower.

  • 21. Hanging Bridges in Arenal

    Suspension bridges and pathways through the rainforest. We did this on our own, but they also offer tours (including nighttime tours) with a naturalist.

  • 22. Catarata La Fortuna

    There is an admission charge and it can be crowded -- but I enjoyed visiting this lovely waterfall. It is a fairly steep hike down, but not difficult for someone in average shape. Be sure to wear your bathing suit!