We just returned from our trip to Costa Rica. First and foremost, the whole trip is very casual. You don't need anything fancy. Maybe a bit nicer clothing for dinner.
We decided to start out in San Jose airport and stay the first night with our friend who lives there. Uh- San Jose is not very nice. No need to tour around. Our friend drove us around in a convertible, in areas where I normally would have locked my car doors.
We woke the next day at 5am and started the journey to Tabacon, which took about 2 1/2 hours. The GPS we had in the rental car served us very well. It will prob. take longer for most people, because we drove on the faster side. The drive was a great introduction to Costa Rica- the countryside is quite gorgeous and we stopped a few times to take photos of the coffee farm vistas, cattle, and at a bakery in one of the towns. I wish I could remember the bakery name for you. We had the best dulce de leche donuts- ever. AND coffee. The coffee is awesome in Costa Rica.
Eventually, the landscape transforms to a more jungle-like experience, the closer you get to the Arenal volcano. It also gets a bit cloudier, some days, so take a sweatshirt if you get cold easily, like me. We stopped at La Fortuna waterfall, on the way. You pay at the desk and then start the hike. We changed to bathing suits in the restroom there, so we could swim in the falls. Sneakers were fine for us. It is about a 20 minute hike, most of it easy for regular folks. There is one area which is steep, but not a big deal. My seven year old was totally fine. I saw people hiking with babies in their arm, but I would't try it!! Too dangerous. Why risk it with a baby?
It was totally worth the hike- a really beautiful site! Huge waterfall and another rock formation with water cascading down. You can swim in the river- a bit cold, but no one complained.
Back to the car- on to Tabacon! We stopped for lunch at a nice restaurant- on the left, modern building. VERY good. Just past the run- down places.
HOTEL: I guess I expected something a bit more grand, perhaps larger, but this was my first time in a jungle hotel, so it's pretty nice for a humble country. Lobby is open-air and there is a small bar/cafe there for food and drink. Unfortunately, I discovered the great food and coffee here, on the last day. Eat here! Get coffee before your activities- it's great. I am a tea drinker but I switched to coffee in Costa!! Check in is late- be prepared. We changed into bathing suits again, and got on the shuttle to the hot springs, which is separate from the main hotel. About 3 minutes by shuttle.
It's high season at the springs, folks! VERY crowded springs. The secret is... the springs are open to hotel guests only, early in the morning. Go then, to avoid the tourist bus invasion! We did, before we left- it was awesome. They will tell you it's not open until 10 am, but it's open to YOU if you're staying at the hotel, before that. You cant get towels until 10, so bring them with you from the main hotel. If you have any hope in hell of getting a chair (I counted 21 lounge chairs, total) then go in the am. Also, try the spa- it looks really relaxing. I would have, if I had more time.
The springs are most enjoyable when there aren't 50 people running around you. They are stunning! Just layers of falls, pretty warm- almost too hot at first, like getting into a bathtub. There is an adult area. You actually don't really need sunscreen here- it's all shaded, except at the pool- you prob won't get a chair, though.
We ate at Los Tucanes for dinner- it was okay. Not impressed. They tried to be fancy, but it was just above average. To be fair, it was a set menu for the New Year's dinner, so? I always hate New Years menus anyhow.
The next day we traveled to an animal rescue to do our thing. It was great. Proyecto Asis, I think. On the way home we ate lunch in La Fortuna. It was a touristy town with restaurants and shops. We ate at Lava Rocks. I happen to like the typical food in Costa Rica, so I really liked it. Coconut rice, plantains, grilled fish or meat...
Then, we came back and went to the main pool. Uh- maybe there were 8 lounge chairs, total? No place to sit. The chairs are slippery, curvy and do not recline. Same at the springs. Too bad.
We showered and ate at the restaurant by the springs. UGH! It was flooded with tour bus people and the buffet line was ridiculous. I hated that. The food was decent, not wonderful. Obviously, you are not traveling to Costa for the food. It's about the activities, the great people, and seeing this absolutely beautiful country.
ROOMS: The beds have good linens, our room was a bit dark. We had a view of the volcano, which was awesome! Comfy enough. One of the bed frames was very creaky, which was annoying. Honestly, don't expect a luxurious hotel. It takes quite a bit of upkeep to have a hotel in the jungle, it is a bit in need of some TLC but I found it to be adequate. It was perfectly fine and comfy for us. We stayed only 3 nights here. It bothered me that there were three coconuts with drinking straws sticking out of them, outside our patio door the entire time. Someone on the walking path must have left them there and they were overlooked by the housekeeping. They were there upon check in. They may still be there today...
SERVICE: My main travel rule is- be nice to people and they will most likely be nice, in return. Don't travel to warm climates and expect New York City service. It won't happen, and if you've traveled enough, then you already know this. Be patient.
BREAKFAST BUFFET: You will be able to find something to your liking. It's not the luxurious Four Seasons buffet, but you will be fine. AND (for a supposedly third world country) Costa Rica has the freshest, ripest fruit I have tasted. Just think... those humble people living in the roadside shacks are eating better fruit than the richest person in the USA!
Last day: we did the am springs, and the cafe guy (who was awesome) made us packed lunches (try the beef taco thing) so we could start the 4 hour drive to Tamarindo area. (JW Marriott).
All in all, it was a really great spot to try jungle activities, see the springs, and do your thing. Don't expect a place where you can lay at the pool and relax- it's not good for that. Too shady and not enough comfy chairs. BUT... don't come all this way and not try activities. That's what it's about here.
If you are driving on: make sure you have gas in the car- not many gas stations on the way. The drive around the lake is really crazy- lots of twists and turns, for about an hour. Beautiful scenery. The roads are not as bad as people say- but they are still challenging.