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Costa Rica is one of the most overwhelming countries to plan for since it is a multi-destination vacation and has so much to choose from in so little time. To get a good feel of having done it all and seen it all, 4 weeks or more is recommended.
Even to book a flight ticket, a choice has to be made between Liberia and San Jose. If most of your vacation is beach and sun, Liberia is a good choice.
San Jose is central if you are planning on catching any internal flights.
Open Road's best of Costa Rica / Charlie Morris is a good first book to read just to get an overview of the country. Though it doesn't excel in the nitty gritty details, this book was the one which put the country in a perpective for trip planning.
A good book to take along if any would be a New Key to Costa Rica. Very comprehensive and the phone numbers could be useful.
Almost all lodging options are clean and hence you could stay in the cheapest ones if that's your style. Food is better in the smaller extabilishments than in the finer restaurants.
The Ticos are extremely nice. They never hassle you for TIPs and are honest in their dealings. Unlike a lot fo the Carribean, this country has as many Tico tourists as foreigners which is heartening.
Keep an eye out for wildlife EVERYWHERE. Most of our best sightings of wildlife were by chance and not in planned wildlife tours.
If you are thinking of driving but are reconsidering due to bad road reports, please go ahead and drive. While the roads surely do not meet American standards, the highways are perfectly fine. Some roads that access national parks etc are not paved and have potholes and such but in now way pose that big a threat that you shouldn't rent a car. Haven't been to Monteverde so am not vouching for that.
I booked the car rental with Eurpocar many months in advance and got a great deal. So I wasn't inclined to change it inspite of bad reviews in TripAdvisor. Thankfully we did not have any major problems.
First of all, we called Europcar in San Jose directly to confirm our reservation and also got the name of the rep we spoke to. Then we called our credit card company and had them fax a letter which helped us waive collision damage insurance though we still had to get liability. The entire check in process at the counter was unbelievably slow and with just 1 customer in front of us it took us 2 hours before we finally got our car and could get out of there. The shuttle also took sometime in coming to the airport. We rented a Dahaitsu Terios (compact) that suited our needs perfectly. It was ideal for a couple with lots of luggage.
While GPS is not necessary for navigation, it was a boon in finding businesses and places - gas, food etc. We rented one and felt it was worth it.
Regarding language, while you can get by with English it works best if you meet the locals half way while practising your Spanish. I enjoyed practising my very basic Spanish.They are quite patient when you try speaking their language.
I reserved to stay in this place the first night just to be able to get en early start to see Poas volcano. By the time we left Europcar office and landed in Poas it was dark and raining. It took us a while to figure out how to actually reach the hotel after the turnoff. It is set in a cloud forest and all but next time I would choose a cheaper place and not focus on seeing Poas since it is a big hit or miss. For us it was a big miss...
We looked at the dinner menu and since it was overpriced and didn't have a good variety, we just headed out - thanks to the GPS. There are atleast 3-4 restaurants in the vicinity.
Breakfast was okay with toast, fresh fruit and eggs. I would have prefered the Tico style breakfast. But they were helpful with any questions we had and also had a place to store our lugage while we visited La Paz Waterfall Gardens
This restaurant is just a few yards away from Poas Volcano Lodge. Looks like a roadside dining place but the food was very unique and tasty. they had all sorts of crepes with tico fillings like heart of palm and more too. Very diversified menu and great service. family owned. They have some cheap great desserts and fruit juices too.
Since the Poas crater could not be seen due to fog and rain based on what we heard in the lodge, we got discounted tickets from them for La Paz waterfall gardens. I was already not sure if I wanted to include it in my plans but since Poas volcano did not work out we headed out to the Disney land of costa rica.
yes they have waterfalls and great surroundings, but half of Costa rica does. They have hummingbird feeders but it is funner to see them in the wild and easy too. Their waterfalls are great but the best one can be seen from the road behind La Paz. You cannot really swim in any of them.
The worst part of La Paz is their caged monkeys, birds, reptiles and the butterflies. They seemed very unhappy and it was depressing. The best part is that we saw most of these species out in the wild in other places in CR where you can also observe their natural behaviors which is more fascinating than seeing them going mad and cooped up inside the sad cages.
This is another restaurant close to Poas volcano lodge family run, and with a more Tico menu made to order with fresh tortillas. Do not miss the frescas or fruit juices in any of these places. Very yummy.
We stretched our stay in Arenal to 4 days since reading through the forums, it seemed much more probable this way to see the volcano and some lava action when it was not clouded out thatn if u just spend a day or 2.
The first part of the drive from Poas is through a cloud forest followed by a straight not very interesting road to Fortuna. Of interest were the Costa rican racoons called posetas which were being fed by locals from their car. They were moving extremely fast alongside the road.
overall Arenal was rainy and cold for the most part of our stay there. The cold part I heard was unusual. In any case, it did not really affect our travel plans. We found the place extremely interesting with loads of activities to choose from ranging from ziplining, rafting, canyoneering etc.
Most other tourists we met had been to Monteverde but had not seen much wildlife there because fo the rain and everybody hated the roads leading to Monteverde.
The best value expense of our trip. The reason I booked a room here is because of the lava view and the price of just 35$ per night. Would have been cheaper if I had called directly instead of using arenal.net.
The cabin was standalone and huge with 3 beds but nothing fancy. you could park your car right in front of the room and the window in the back had great arenal views.
The main office had a restaurant which had 3-4 choices for breakfast all within 3-4$. They also serve lunch and dinner. We had dinner here one day after lava viewing and it was pretty okay for the convenience. However this place is a good 45 minutes from La Fortuna on a rather bumby road. The ride isn't always fun but the scenery is good with arenal, rainforests and stream crossings right on the road.
Ph: 479-9565. Almost all of Costa Rican restaurants serve thin crust pizzas and this one is no exception. Good pizzas that you can see them make, great service and a casual outdoor ambience make it an enjoyable experience.
This was sort of a rainy day but we were spared of rain during the trip to the Bridges .. Their guided tour was all booked so we just bought the entrance tickets and explored the place on our own.
Be careful of your belongings while on the bridges especially the small items (I let my camera lens cover drop though the slits in the bridge into the abyss of the rain forest. We were just thankful that it was not the car keys :))
The place is beautiful with its trees, birds, waterfalls and wildlife. ALmost within 5 minutes of entering the park, we heard trees rustle and knew it should be the monkeys. And o yes there was one white faced monkey right above us. Then in the last bridge we had a memorable time observing two white faced monkeys at close quarters for a long time. Nearby there were 2 great birds too (Am not good with bird names). And then there were a couple more white faced monkeys on the hike back. Without seeing wildlife it is a nice place to visit and with wildlife it is spectacular.
You can see wildlife without a guide as we did if you are lucky, quiet and know the signs .. trees rustling etc ...)
The place is well run. In the end a guide helped us identify a bird even though we were not in a guided tour with him. We found this almost everywhere in Costa Rica. The guides would volunteer information even if you were not actually paying them. They seemed passionate about what they do.
As I mentioned earlier tis is an upscale place meaning food was bland and just okay. Service was good like any other restaurant. Access to the Arenal Lodge is a semi-adventure in itself through a semi winding road partly in rain forest.
A good value for money activity (35$).. There is some driving on unpaved roads to get to the cave. GPS was useful to get there. The cave has a river flowing through it and most of the trip is wading through a river and there was some squeezing through small spaces. The cave had some cool formations but the trip was more about the adventure of getting to and being in different sections of the cave than going wow at the formations. The guide was good too .. We just showed up at around 2.00 .. It is best to show up before 3.00 PM to catch the last trip. There is a small stretch of hiking down some slippery marsh to get to the cave.
Mexican restaurant with good food and great frescas. Remember that in many Costa Rican restaurants like this one, Tips is not added to the bill and you can add the recommended 10%. The waiter tried telling us this but with his limited english and our limited spanish, we realized this much later :-(
If I did this again, I would try not to choose Christmas Day. One advantage was that there were hardly any people in the area nor were there other tours. But I am not sure our guide was happy about having to tear away from family celebrations. In fact we were the only two in our trip and it was super relaxed. Meaning you will see a lot of birds but its not like a safari or anything. There is quite a bit of just plain cruising. Be sure to visit the Cano Negro lake as well where there are turtles and howler monkeys. We also saw a baby caiman, a sleeping boa, kingfisher, iguana, and many more birds.The drive from arenal is perfectly okay until the last part which can be bone rattling.
Lunch was included and we could choose from a small menu of options. We also had breakfast there and that was good too.
We thought long and hard about canoeing here but we did not. (part of the reason being that it was more expensive) I still am not sure which is better. I think you can cover more ground with a boat which is a good thing when searching for wldlife but it surely is a good place for relaxed canoeing.
On the way back from Cano Negro, we were stopped by cops for our passport which we did not have and we showed him our driver licenses - that seemed to be satisfactory. I was told before that we need not have our passports all the time but i think it is wise to atleast have a copy on you.
So we had the evening free and arenal was rainy and cold. So we decided to go to Eco Thermales hot springs. We waited by the gate and there is no way to contact them by just stopping by. A bus came by and we tagged along behind. We reach the receptionist and the guy says he cannot entertain any guests who do not call. So we came out and went to Baldi Hot Springs as tabacon was overpriced and many folks were not happy with the experience for the price. (The food was awful too by hearsay) Baldi is exactly how we thought it would be. Cheap (pricewise), crowded and loud. But a great variety of hot pools and splashes. Overall we were happy with the experience. My husband says he tuned out the music in 5 minutes. It was also a great place to chit chat with other travelers and whine about the rain and not having seen arenal. We called up Eco termales the next day only to figure out they were booked for days. The whole experience with them was very weird.
I don't remember much about the food except that we liked it. Service was good as well as in many smaller estabilishments in Costa Rica.The waitress there did comment how unusual it was for arenal to be cold.
This is the best thing we did in arenal following lava viewing. To book this trip deeply discounted refer 'SeaninSoCal's trip notes. We sadly paid the retail $85. Also refer other threads whcih compare this outfit with PuraVida.
Because of the holidays, there were quite a few people in this trip, say like 10. The place is beautiful and the guides do such a great job that u actually enjoy the place without worrying about the rappeling. Each waterfall you rappel is different and uses slightly different techniques. A shockproof/waterproof camera is essential to get any pictures. Included lunch was homecooked and was adequate even for us vegetarians. There is a short steep hike up at the end of the rappeling.
The sky cleared enough to snatch a view of arenal's cone as we headed back from rappeling. We went straight to el castillo stopping at arenal national park on the way to grab a few pictures. we set up our tripod outside our cabin and enjoyed a glorious 20 minutes of arenal lava viewing. After that it was back to cloudy old mountain that didn't even look like a volcano.
Today was when we had food at the El castillo cabins and actually enjoyed it.
While there are a few hikes, I felt entering this park is a waste of time. I think visiting Arenal waterfalls would have been better. There is nothing more you see from the park that you don't see outside. I feel guilty even while I say this since it is in general a good idea to support the national park system with the fees.
This was on way to tenorio thru tilaran. he road leading upto tilaran was very scenic with the lake and the ever present rainforest.This was quite good and popular.
This is one place which is easier to get to with a GPS. My husband says it was his favourite lodgng. We only stayed a night and the Harriet cabin is away from the Heliconias Lodge and u need a car or shud be prepared to walk 5 minutes for dinner, lunch etc. They have 2-3 short trails with suspension bridges and chance of seeing howler monkeys and other wildlife. They also have a longer trail to Lago Danto which we did not take. This lodge is still an hour away from tenorio. Food was adequate and if you need information on Tenorio hikes there are some guides who were more helpful. They also tend to steer you towards guided hikes a little bit.
The rio celeste hike can be easily done on your own. U can get a trail map at the entrance. There are 2 entrances. Both entrances have trails leading up to the falls and springs but one is shorter than the other. The waterfall and the hot springs are absolutely fabulous. Hot springs is right in the river and there are 2 or 3 spots. Only a few people can enjoy it at a time at a spot where its neither too cold nor too hot. It was also drizzling when we were there. The access road is the worst we drove in Costa Rica. You almost dread it on the way back.
This was the most generic of the places we stayed in. It was ok, clean but the best part was that the manager Rick helped us book the turtle nesting tour in Playa Grande in advance directly with the national park without any middlemen.
A pizza place few buildings away from Diversion Tropical with a nice ambience.
A wonderful diving outfit. Remember that cash works better for them compared to credit cards. They have a very good divemaster and decent dive equipment. The whole experience with them was very pleasant with only 4-5 people at the most. On one of those days, we were the only two with the divemaster. Thay also help you suit up if you are wondering.
They exclusively dive the Catalina islands. The couple days we dove there, the visibility was not great. That meant we did not see any manta rays even if they were there but the fish life was out of the world. I have never so many different schools of fish made of such large numbers. Also we saw many octopii. I loved the dives inspite of the poor visibility and lack of mantas. My husband liked it okay.
Ph 654-4521, 366-2719
This is like a beach bar kind of hangout with decent food at the end of playa flamingo. They also catered to our vegetarian needs.
Great food with make your own noodle bowls and sushi. Sadly at that point we were not big sushi lovers so we stuck to the noodle bowls. This was one restaurant we wanted to return to but it was closed on New years Eve.
Pizza hut is pizza hut. Nothing more to be said.
A quaint cafe which is family owned by an Italian surfer. Interesting breads and sandwiches.
Cattle herd operation but almost the only option if you decide to learn usrfing at the last moment. Trust me, u will most likely feel like trying surfing if you are in Playa Tamarindo. It has a very disticnt surfers vibe. We were not very happy with the instructor as he was pretty impatient and rude. My husband could catch a few waves though when he was cued in by the instructor.
Yes Playa Tamarindo is made up and touristly but the selection of restaurants and the general energy make it a worthwhile place to drive to late evening. We were there New years Eve and there were lots of families celebrating with bonfires on the beach. We felt safe.
This wild cat refuge was on the way back to San Jose and it was the only zoo environment that made sense to me as it was for rescued animals. They really care for the animals and its worth the half hour to 1 hour you can spend in there. The priority there is to give the animals a comfortable life and not to give people the best viewing opportunities.
This restaurant is on the way to San Jose. Very nice restaurant and they can cook anything you need. Nice stop on the way to san jose from the west coast.
Its a house where many rooms are available for rent. Our room was adequate (iwth private bath) and the hosts were very gracious. I helped myself to mangoes and other fruits in the kitchen and they did not mind one bit. It is also pretty quiet.
I booked my entire stay in the Osa peninsula with Corcovado expeditions. They are easy to deal with and reply both to email and phone. The hilltop cabin in Hotel Ojala is superlative with its panaramic ocean views and solitude. The room is huge, well lit and away from the main house. Food prepared by the owner and his wife is simple but delciious. He is also very friendly and will give you rides to save on the taxi fare. It was a perfect last leg of our vacation in Costa Rica.
Right before the bug tour, we watched a boa constrict an iguana at the Pirate Coves a foot away from the steps.We kept watch for 2 hours hoping we would get to see it swallow the iguana but we were not THAT lucky. I guess all of us crowding around it stressed it out. Heard from Tracie, the bug lady that in jinetes, a boa once constricted a howler monkey which howled away for what seemed like eternity. Talk about surreal wildlife experiences.
The bug tour with tracie comes highly recommnded. Just her passion and knowledge of the insect world makes the trip worthwhile. I never knew spiders could be interesting and dynamic.
We did this hike through the Corcovado Expeditions. It was a fast uncomfortable ride to Corcovado followed by a hike through the jungle to the beach and back. We saw scarlet macaw pairs, a woodpecker, owls, monkeys, bullsharks and crocodiles in the river mouth mostly through binoculars. Some of the primary forest trees surviving were grand. We never met any other group through the hike,
Other we met who had done the San Pedrillo ranger station said there was no wildlife but huge crowds and a nice waterfall.
This is shark country. We saw a lineup of sharks resting in the sand. There wasn't too much coral, the wildlife though intersting was less than what I saw in Catalina but the sharks (white tipped) and devil rays made up for it. We had lunch in isla cano in a very crowded beach.Jinetes de osa a dive operation was exemplary by not allowing a diver with a huge camera poking at all the coral to dive the second time around. I love dive operations and divers that respect the oceans that feed and entertain.
The day we went Jientes had a huge group of snorkelers that made the boat very crowded. Another tourist at Ojala had an almost private outing with the same company.
We returned to San Jose in the 4 PM flight and had dinner in this very good mexican restaurant owned by the person who manages the Vida Tropical B&B.
Very nice coffee shop where i enjoyed my last tres leches :-)