My husband and I visited Costa Rica for the first time December 16-27, 2006. I used trip advisor extensively to plan the trip (didn't use a travel agent or service at all), and it was perfect! Almost all my arrangements were done via the internet and email--there were just a few exceptions where I had to make phone calls. We flew into San Jose, visited Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde, and Guanacaste, and flew home from Liberia.
I don't want to repeat a lot of the great information already posted on trip advisor, but I'll report our experiences and the highlights of our trip. I plan to post separate reviews of hotels, restaurants, etc. rather than make this posting too long.
I found the Ticos in general to be friendly and very proud of their country, which I thought was great. They are pretty laid back, so sometimes--for us driven Americans--service is a bit slow, or things don't seem to be handled very efficiently--you just have to go with the flow. I was told by someone that you need to ask for your check at a restaurant because it is considered rude for the waiter to just bring it--you are welcome to sit at the table as long as you want. I don't know for sure if that is true, but that's what we experienced, so if you didn't know that you might think service was inattentive.
We never felt unsafe during our visit. As a tourist I never felt we were "ripped off" or taken advantage of. For example, drinks and food are reasonably priced, even in places where you are somewhat of a captive audience. The ticos are not "in your face" trying to get you to buy souvenirs or whatever the way I have experienced in other countries, or the crass commercialism of some US tourist spots. All this contributed to the good overall experience--Costa Rica is not a "tropical paradise" in the sense of say a tropical island, but it is "real," and offers it's own charm, beauty and ecological diversity. You can be as active as you want to be, or do nothing but commune with nature or sit on the beach.
We never exchanged dollars. Sometimes we got colones in change and other times got dollars back. We used cash for everything except the hotel bills. Pretty much everyone in the tourist trade speaks English, but they appreciate it if you at least try to speak Spanish--so use it if you have it. Even though restaurants add on service charges, we always tipped extra, left tips for hotel housekeepers, etc. Take plenty of $1 bills for tipping.
Instead of renting a car, we hired a van and driver. We had a very good experience with Costa Rica Shuttle. I found this to be one of our best decisions for a number of reasons: 1) relieves the stress of driving yourself on bad roads, reading maps, etc., but you have the same freedom of movement as having a rental car 2) Our driver, Alvaro, was great. He was more than just a driver, he was a tour guide and he spoke with locals to get us reservations, ask questions, and resolved a few problems, but also it was just fun getting to know him and talking to him about his country and his life 3) unlike your own rental car, the driver stays with the van, so you can safely leave things in the car while you are touring or at a restaurant 4) It was fun to be chauffered and both be able to take in the scenery, etc. It gave us an opportunity to snuggle in the back seat like newlyweds! Other times I sat up front and tried to improve my (very poor) Spanish 5) You have no worries about drinking and driving (which we were told is enforced--at least during the holidays when we were there).
We were in CR over theChristmas holiday--supposedly a very popular time, but it never felt crowded to me. Probably the most crowded experience we had was hiking in the Cloud Forest in Monteverde. There was nothing we wanted to do that we couldn't do, or any restaurant we couldn't get in to, etc. (However, the hotels we stayed in were full, so reservations must be made ahead at this time this time of year (we were told it's a popular time for the Costa Ricans to travel), but we made ours only about a month in advance because going to CR was kind of a last minute decision).
Costa Rica is not a shoppers paradise. We also were not very interested in the crafts, which were almost all carved wooden objects. This is obviously personal taste, but I thought they were really expensive for the quality. We are not really into buying "souvenirs", but we always buy some type of art work or local crafts on our trips, and the only things I bought were a wooden bracelet, a small wooden box, and a carved gourd that I bought from a guy on the side of the road between Monteverde and Guanacaste.
Below is some information on our activities and where we stayed.
We did not visit San Jose because of all I had read--instead spent the first night at Santo Domingo de Heredia at the Hotel Bougainvillea, which we liked, especially the beautiful gardens on the grounds. The one mistake I made was not planning an activity for the afternoon and evening. We thought about the Britt coffee tour, but got there too late. We had a late lunch at the hotel (good) , but after that there was not really much around the hotel to walk to, and at this point we did not have our own transportation, because we were to be picked up in the morning to go to Tortuguero.
Tortuguero - Pachira Lodge-- We did the 2 night package with Pachira Lodge and enjoyed it very much. We felt the 2 night deal was just the right amount of time--1 night would be awfully short for the time it takes to get there and back. The drive to Tortuguero is interesting, through Cloud Forest, coffee and banana plantations. The bus takes you to the dock where you get on the boats that go through the canals to take you the Lodge (like all the Tortuguero lodges). The town of Tortuguero is not much, we walked around but didn't buy anything except a couple of "cervesas" (beers). We did not see any turtles as it was not the season. We did the canals by boat as well as hike in the Tortuguero national park. I liked the hike better. We are big fans of gardens and arboretums, so that's something we always do when we travel. I had to remind myself that I wasn't in a recreated jungle, that I was in a real rain forest--I loved it. A young local boy came along with our group as a "helper" to our guide. At the end, we actually stopped at his home (and of course gave him a tip). It seemed his whole extended family was there, and they were selling drinks and coconuts. Grandma was cutting the coconuts with a huge knife. While a cynical person might think this was too touristy, it really wasn't. I think this family may make their living doing this, and everyone in our group really had a good time. On the spur of the moment, we did a canopy tour/zip lines in Tortuguero. It was fun, but I suspect not as exciting or big as those in other places in the country. I'm really not sure because we didn't do another one while we were there.
Highlights: what I liked most is that you get what you came for--a lodge in the rain forest--there's not even a gift shop here. We probably saw the most monekys of the whole trip right on Pachira's grounds and got some good pictures--spider and howler monkeys (wow is that weird hearing them at night and early in the morning, they sounded like they were on the roof of our cabin). We had a great and very reasonably priced massage at the lodge next door (walking distance, but I don't even know the name of it) which apparently is owned by the same people.
The morning we left, one of our guides was very helpful in making direct contact with Costa Rica Shuttle to arrange exactly where we would meet up with our driver and van and he handed us off personally--that's the kind of experience we had with Ticos throughout the trip.
The drive from Tortuguero to Arenal took about 3 1/2 hours. This is not the most beautiful scenery, but the roads are good. Our driver knew of a restaurant where we stopped where the owner has all these iguanas living in the trees around the restaurant. We got some amazing pictures of huge iguanas! Neat.
Arenal - Lost Iguana Resort. We spent 3 nights here, and Arenal was probably my favorite place, and the Lost Iguana Resort our favorite hotel. The grounds are beautiful, our room was first class, with a wonderful view of the volcano. Some folks don't like the location because it is outside of La Fortuna, but if you have your own transportation, this is no big deal. (more details on my separate review of Lost Iguana). We were lucky enough to see the lava flowing on the volcano 2 nights in a row. It's often too cloudy to see. Tip--if it's cloudy when you go to bed, get up in the middle of the night as it often clears up at 2, 3, or 4 am. and you get great views. I found viewing the volcano awesome and couldn't get enough of it!
We did the PureTrek Canyoning tour (which is rappelling down a waterfall). All I can say is that we were pretty proud of ourselves! Why? I'm 56 and my husband is 63, and we both have bad arthritis in our knees--but we managed. Neither of us had rappelled before, and it was exciting and challenging for us, the guides were great and the canyon and waterfall were beautiful. I kept saying, I can't believe I'm doing this! It was really the hiking over rough and slippery terrain between rappels and then hiking out of the canyon that did in our knees--boy were they sore. But it was definitely a highlight of the trip. Search trip advisor for more info and reviews on this, which is owned by a very nice American woman from California who now lives in CR.
We also did the hanging bridges, which we loved. It might be boring for the more adventurous types, but if you like communing with nature in a quiet and peaceful way, enjoy seeing a variety of flora and beautiful views, etc., do the hanging bridges. We saw monkeys, a few birds, and several leaf cutter ant colonies--cool.
The great Hot springs debate. I chose Eco Termales because of the info I got on tripadvisor. It is smaller, quieter, more intimate than Tabacon and Baldi. We absolutely loved it! We did the evening (5-9) and had dinner as well, which was lovely. My husband wanted to go back a second time, but I convinced him to go to Baldi for a different experience. I wish I hadn't. It is twice as expensive as Eco Termales, crowded, touristy, loud music, yuk! My hubby had the grace not to say "I told you so." More details on a separate posting on Eco Termales, if you are interested.
Based on reviews on tripadvisor, in La Fortuna we ate at El Novillo--good steaks--and La Choza de Laurel. Liked them both a lot.
Monteverde. bumpy ride is part of the experience, and the scenery throBelieve everything you read about how awful the road is from Arenal to Monteverde. We were VERY happy that Alvaro was driving! It's not just unpaved, it's rocks! Alvaro told us that there are 2 reasons for the condition of the roads--one is that it is very expensive to pave roads (Costa Rica imports all its oil, and it takes petroleum to make asphalt) but also because the local population in this area by and large don't want paved roads because it would bring more development and more people. Who can blame them! Somehow the ugh the mountains is spectacular. So grand it is hard to photograph with a normal camera--you need those special wide angle lenses to do it any justice.
In Monteverde we stayed 2 nights at the Montana Monteverde hotel. Nothing special--a plain room, good sized bathroom, a complementary bottle of wine, breakfast included was good. And it was the least expensive of our hotels, so we hadn't really expected much more. There is no pool, but it had a hot tub with a beautiful view.
To me, Santa Elena was disappointing as a town. Also we had read that Monteverde had more of an arts community, but we found that disappointing as well. We didn't buy anything, even though we wanted to, but we just didn't see any thing we liked.
We ate 2 nights at Sophia because of the good reviews on tripadvisor. We both enjoyed and my husband thought it was the best food of the trip. I probably would have gone to a different place the second night, but after the Baldi thing, I figured he should get his way!
We found 2 days in Monteverde were plenty for us, but you can definitely spend more time there if you want to do more activities like canopy tours, horseback riding, ATV tours, etc.
On the way to Monteverde we we saw signs for a coffee plantation tour, so we diverted briefly and stopped (Coopeldos, R.L., ecological coffee tour). It was a coop, and we were the only ones there, so we got a personal tour. It was so much fun learning about coffee. I never realized that coffee "beans" were actually fruits. We were also very lucky that one of the coffee growers happened to bring in his beans while we were there, so we got to see it weighed and graded. We also went to the tasting room and learned how the official tasters do their job. At the end we had coffee and a nice piece of cake. We really enjoyed this experience.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve is wonderful--it's a magical place. We did get to see a couple Quetzels--through the telescope the guides carry--not up close. We saw a taranchula (cool), birds, not a lot of wildlife. This was not surprising because when we were there it was fairly crowded--the most crowded thing we did on the entire trip. It must be even more fabulous when it is not crowded.
Don't miss the butterfly farm. It has enthusiastic and knowledgeable young folks working there--our guide was a Canadian fellow, another was an American. They tend to be young folks majoring in some science program and come for internships. You learn not only about butterflies, but many kinds of insects, some very yukky. Kids would love this, but its interesting for adults too. We had done a butterfly farm in Arenal too, but this one was far better.
The beach. We drove from Monteverde to Guanacaste where we stayed at the Fiesta Premire resort in Playa Panama. The roads were about half bad, half good for this 3-4 hour trip, and the scenery was nice. We somewhat sadly said good bye to our driver Alvaro, as we would not need a car at the Fiesta Premire because it is an all-inclusive resort, and our plan was to just stay there and relax and enjoy the pool and beach. However, there were lots of people here who were staying longer and doing day trips from the hotel. The location here is scenic, with the hotel built into the hills overlooking the water. Overall, our stay here was quite pleasant.
Highlights: We enjoyed taking a jet ski tour and we had a wonderful couples massage in a cabana overlooking the beach. It was great getting a massage while listening to the birds and the waves lapping. Also, they have an adults only pool which was great to get away from the more noisy main pool area.
I hope my report has been helpful to others, and I highly recommend a trip to Costa Rica. I think it has something for everyone!