Hello, all. Below is a trip report of the trip my wife and I got back from jsut this past weekend. We were in Costa Rica's North Pacific area from Dec 4-9.
Day 1 - Arrived in the evening to Liberia airport. If you are a couple, we recommend just taking a taxi to your hotel/resort. It will cost around 40 dollars. If you are able to hook up with more people, you can arrange a minibus for $55-60 for the whole group, but I think you need to arrange that beforehand. The airport was very easy and quick, but maybe that was because we were one of the first ones off the plane. The ride to the Occidental Grand Papagayo resort was pleasant... the roads weren't too terribly bad. When we arrived at the resort, we were struck by how quiet it was. Grand Papagayo is a fun place, but the evenings were very subdued right from the start. To us, that wasn't a bad thing, but I figure there are some readers who may put that in the "minus" column. Like many posters to this forum, we had an initial mixup with the room. We were patient and not irate, and they fixed the problem immediately.
Day 2 and 3 - Enjoyed the resort. In the morning, we explored the beach, which was very nice. There were plenty of soft sandy spots for people who want to get in the water. My wife and I were having a lot of fun exploring the tidal pools among the lava formations/jettys that jutted out into the water during low tide. All sorts of fun sealife to examine. The hermit crabs of all sizes were a lot of fun. We also had breakfast at the buffet. The food was pretty decent, and the coffee was delicious, of course. Then, mid-morning, the hotel activity coordinators started organizing fun stuff. First, they did an aqua-aerobics session. They followed that up with pool volleyball, which was extremely popular all during our stay (I played just about every day). Lunch at the "snack bar" by the pool was a real meal... I had been expecting limited snacks like chips and salsa, but what we got instead was a full fledged buffet. This was my favorite place to eat, since it was right by the pool. We tried the buffet one night and the Italian restaurant the next. The buffet was good, but the dining room wasn't as fun as the snack bar or the more elegant rooms of the Italian and Oriental restaurants. The Italian restaurant gets high points for presentation. The food wasn't Italian enough (the chef needs to watch more Molto Mario), but it was tasty. The ceasar dressing was authentic, though.
We also went on the sunset walk, and the morning nature walk, both of which explore the area around the resort. It was fun to have the option of hiking and beach-bumming so close together.
Day 4 - Our first tour to the Arenal Volcano. We arranged this tour through the TAM representative in the hotel lobby. The tour was an all-day adventure, and we enjoyed it thouroughly. Giovanni was our tour guide, and he was extremely charismatic and well-spoken. He took us on a nature walk in the rainforest where we visited a local indigenous tribe. Then we went into town for lunch, followed by a luxurious stop at a volcanic hot springs lodge (Ahhhh!), then dinner at the lodge. When it got dark, we drove to a nearby country road away from the lights so that we could clearly see the lava flows coming down the volcano's sides. I wish we could have gotten closer, but it was truly awesome to see that. The ride home was almost 4 hours, so this tour is an all-day affair if you go from Grand Papagayo, Paradisus, or other nearby resorts.
Day 5 - Sailing and snorkeling in the morning arranged through the Diving company situated on the resort grounds. We sailed aboard the Kuna captained by Yann Riou, a frenchman, who was an extremely gracious host. He served us homemade pate, rum punch, fruit, sandwiches, quiche... a wonderful little French picnic. My wife and I loved it! And the boat was amazing. We did some real sailing, too, since it was a windy day. He took us to a fantastic snorkeling spot. We weren't expecting much, but there was plenty of sealife to see. There were a few minor jellyfish stings (tiny, tiny jellyfish), but even my wife (a scaredy-cat usually) was able to overlook that fact. We also explored a secluded beach with a neat little cave.
Other notes: The hotel staff at Grand Papagayo were very nice and I would say even a little shy. They seem to detest confrontation. I saw some really obnoxious guests (not Americans - can you believe it?) getting irate about something stupid, and the staff tend to just tune them out. You will really get a lot farther if you're super sweet in trying to get some problem addressed. Also, I enjoyed the resort a lot, but I wouldn't describe it as luxurious. The focus is more on the environment and the ecology of the place, which gives everything a little bit of a rustic edge. I loved it, but I want readers of this forum to have the right expectation... and to know that there are a few undefinable qualities of Costa Rican resorts that aren't really like beach resorts in other areas around the Carribean. It truly is a beautiful ecological wonder of a place.
Air conditioner note: The Grand Papagayo has air conditioning units mounted near the ceiling on the wall. Some, if not all, are mounted right above the thermostat. If you allow the cold air to blow right on the thermostat, the unit will turn on and off in quick succession. This is both noisy and inefficient. We wedged the vent in a different position so that it was not blowing on the thermostat.
Feel free to ask questions... I'll be checking back to see if anyone wants any clarifications.