(long trip report - there was lots to see and do!)
My wife, our adult son, and I visited Costa Rica from April 10 to April 25, 2018. It was a terrific vacation, with plenty of highlights and several jaw-dropping moments.
Delta Air Lines - from Vancouver via Seattle and Los Angeles. A long travel day with an overnight flight from LAX to SJO, arriving around 7am on April 11. We had a 7 hour layover at LAX so we splurged for access to the Delta Sky Club lounge. While it was nice to be able to shower before boarding the overnight flight, the Sky Club lounges were busy and the food was unremarkable, and really not worth the US$59 per person charge. We wouldn’t do it again.
SIM Card - We purchased a US$20 SIM card for our unlocked phone at the ICE booth near the baggage carousel, mostly for WAZE access. We waited about 5-10 minutes at the booth and the purchase went smoothly.
Vamos Car Rental - Vamos rep was waiting outside the terminal, with our name on a small board. While he didn’t speak much English, we understood our shuttle to the Vamos office would be there in about 10 minutes. It arrived fairly soon and we were taken to their office nearby. I had been quoted US$855 for an SUV with full insurance and I also chose Vamos since they are located right next to the Hampton Inn, where we would spend our final night, making the SUV rental easy and convenient.
A different Vamos rep, whose English was very good, worked with us and within about 45 minutes we had our SUV – a Ssangyong Korando, which was fine for the 3 of us, plus one large suitcase, one medium suitcase, two backpacks, and the free large cooler provided by Vamos. The return, two weeks later, was just as easy and we were charged exactly what we had been quoted. We did have a minor problem with the vehicle after about 10 days – a window would not close, but we were able to get it closed after a few attempts and simply did not reopen it for the rest of the trip. The Vamos rep did tell us that we should have called them and they would have been pleased to get a new vehicle to us no matter where we were in Costa Rica.
Proyecto Asis - Thoroughly enjoyed the 3 hour volunteer tour. We fed the macaws, the toucans, and of course the monkeys. Proyecto Asis does some great work for Costa Rican animals, and we would certainly recommend it to anyone visiting Costa Rica. What a great start to our vacation there.
Tree House Hotel - Our first two nights were spent at the Tree House Hotel and this too was terrific. We saw a sloth during the night hike – and it was moving! – as well as a pair of toucans the next morning. A toucan in flight is an amazing thing to see!
Excellent breakfasts and very friendly helpful staff like Yiandra make the Tree House an even better experience. The rooms are a bit small, and there can be considerable noise from trucks on the road nearby, so 2 or 3 nights would likely be the maximum we would recommend there.
Desafio Adventures White Water Rafting - A true highlight of our vacation. This was our first time ever white water rafting so we opted for the half-day Class II and III on the Rio Balsa, and it was perfect – just the right amount of thrills for us. On the bus ride to the river, our guide asked everyone what we expected, and I said “fun and safety”. And that is exactly what we enjoyed from Desafio. They were very professional and at no time did we feel unsafe. With a fruit snack and lunch included, it was well worth the US$75 per person charge. Highly recommended!
Espiritu Santu Coffee Tour - On the way to Naranjo from the Tree House Hotel, we experienced some of Costa Rica’s challenging mountain drives on a very twisty, 2 lane road with slow-moving trucks and buses. And in our case for about 20 minutes or so, very dense fog. It took us about 2 hours to drive the 60 kms to Naranjo, so we were an hour late for our 930am tour, but the friendly as always Ticos there had no problem with that, and we enjoyed a guided tour of the coffee farm and processing, with only 2 other people. A very enjoyable way to learn more about coffee and of course we watched our guide Ronnie make coffee for us the old-fashioned Costa Rican way, with a choreador.
Crocodile Jungle Safari - From there we headed to Tarcoles, for a 330pm Crocodile Jungle Safari boat tour of the Rio Tarcoles. We arrived in plenty of time and enjoyed a private boat tour as we were the only ones scheduled for that tour. The highlight was getting right alongside an 18-foot crocodile nicknamed Mike Tyson. Plenty of birds to see too, and we even enjoyed an exhilarating high-speed run in the rain to get back to our base. The parking area here was secured and we had no issues with leaving our vehicle with our luggage still inside.
Pumilio Hotel - We spent the night at the Hotel Pumilio in Herradura, a very nice small boutique style hotel. The rooms have an outdoor kitchen alongside a pool, and the front desk was happy to order some dinner in for us from a menu they provided. One of us had the biggest burger we’d ever seen!
The Buffet Breakfast at the Pumilio was excellent highlighted by two blue-crowned mot-mots nearby – the only time we would see mot-mots during our vacation.
Tucan Terra in the Osa Peninsula – It’s a long and at times bumpy ride to the Osa Peninsula but so worthwhile. We spent 4 nights at a rented home called Tucan Terra, for US$200 a night, that we found right here on Trip Advisor. We saw all four types of monkeys, and even fed the capuchins a couple of times when they visited our house. Plenty of scarlet macaws, coatis, an agouti, and a sloth. For 4 nights, we lived in the spirit of the Osa with little lighting at night, just sitting in the dark listening to the jungle and watching the fireflies. No air conditioning so we did use the fans above the beds and it was very comfortable, even a bit cool, in spite of very hot and humid days. A beach front property with the constant roar of the ocean waves with gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. We walked along Cabo Matapalo Road, drove to Carate, surfed at Playa Pan Dulce, and enjoyed a lunch and drink at Martina’s. The Osa was very special.
Finca Koba Chocolate Tour – We stopped at Finco Koba just outside Puerto Jimenez for their chocolate tour. It was interesting, with plenty of other plants such as pineapple, bananas, jackfruit, and vanilla. We were a bit disappointed with the limited amount of chocolate that we got to sample, only a slice of a rich chocolate cake.
Fiesta del Rio in Ojochal – we rented another home, this one in Ojochal that we planned to use as a base to explore the beaches in the area and do a bit more surfing. Fiesta del Rio is a 2 bedroom/2 bath home that we found on VRBO, with a patio, BBQ, laundry, and a pool. Lots of wildlife, including cherry tanagers, toucans, hummingbirds including the scintillant hummingbird, one of the world’s tiniest birds, only about 2 inches long including the bill. We were awakened naturally each morning by the howlers, and saw them one morning in a distant tree. It’s a rather bumpy drive up the hills to the house, but again very worthwhile. We thoroughly enjoyed the pool, the comfortable beds, and the surroundings. Highly recommended.
We explored Marino Ballena, surfed at Dominical, enjoyed a pipas frias at Playa Hermosa, and enjoyed the caves at low tide at Playa Ventana. We even enjoyed a torrential tropical rainstorm at a local bar called La Mona Grita.
Dominical Surf School – We highly recommend Dominical Surf School to anyone and particularly if you are a beginner surfer. Debbie was our instructor – she grew up in Dominical and runs the school – and she was excellent, very patient, understanding, and encouraging.
Savegre Lodge in San Gerardo de Dota – The drive from Ojochal to San Gerardo de Dota was again very twisty and challenging – especially the part down to the town from the highway at the top of Cerra de la Muerte. But we were somewhat disappointed with Savegre Lodge. We had a terrific 2 weeks in Costa Rica, and Savegre was really only a minor disappointment. There were 2 busloads of tourists so the grounds and restaurant at times felt over-run with people, which we did not experience anywhere else. These tourists reminded us about just how friendly Ticos are, since we had gotten used to making eye contact and smiling with strangers everywhere. But these tourists did not smile back, did not even make eye contact. We walked the trails above the lodge, with few others around, but still no wildlife beyond a couple of woodpeckers. We felt the buffet dinner was not worth it at close to US$100 for the 3 of us – after all it was a buffet. The rooms at the lodge are dated and spartan, we found the bed linen had rips in it, and it just didn’t really reflect the beautiful surroundings. We were likely spoiled for wildlife by our time in the Osa, but we expected a lot more birds during our admittedly short stay in San Gerardo.
Irazu Volcano – We then moved onto Irazu Volcano which we very much enjoyed…the moon-like landscape and the blue/green water in the crater is an amazing sight, and definitely worth the admission fee to the National Park.
Guayabo Lodge - We spent the night at Guayabo Lodge near Turrialba. A beautiful property, with lovely gardens and a great view of Volcan Turrialba. The clouds lifted at sunset so it was terrific to see the smoke and steam rising from the volcano against a pink sky. The room was fine, breakfast rather ordinary, but the property and the view of the volcano makes it a place that we would recommend.
We had dinner at Rancho del Sapito (ranked #2 of 32 restaurants in Turrialba here on Trip Advisor). Fresh ingredients as they raise their own trout, chickens, pigs, etc on the property and of course we bought some Turrialba cheese and enjoyed that too!
Hampton Inn SJO – our last night in Costa Rica was spent at the Hampton Inn. We chose the hotel mostly because it is located right next to the Vamos office so it was easy and convenient to stay there after we returned the car. But we found it to be a very well run hotel, with excellent service from the front desk. We boarded the free shuttle very early the next morning, around 5am. Good choice for a place to stay at SJO.
Food – As much as we joked about the ubiquitous rice and beans, we actually really enjoyed our casados. At one roadside very ordinary looking soda near Palmar Norte – just a roof, a few tables and chairs, and no menus – we enjoyed excellent casados for each of us, with one beer and pop, for less than 10000 colones, about C$20 or US$15 in total. And it was excellent, the best beans we ate during our trip. We found the canned spaghetti on the plate a bit odd but the rest of the meal was excellent. All our casados were very good, from La Fortuna to the Osa to Turrialba, and very reasonably priced.
The roadside stands with Pipas Frias (fresh coconut water – coconut with a hole in it with a straw) were terrific…about C$1 per coconut. We found fresh pineapples for 500 colones – about C$1.25 – all th pineapple in Costa Rica was excellent. Turrialba cheese was very good too and inexpensive compared to Canada. Groceries are similarly priced to what we pay in Canada.
Panaderias! We discovered them far too late in our trip – the day before we left in a small town between Turrialba and Cartago – and enjoyed some Costa Rican pastries. We struggled with our Spanish but pointing works in all languages. So stopping at a Costa Rican bakery is highly recommended.
Bugs – We had few problems with bugs and mosquitoes. Some no-see’ums at dusk, especially in the Osa. But mostly because we neglected to use repellant a couple of times. But it was the end of the dry season, so it could be worse at other times of the year.
Clothing/gear/weather – We brought ponchos, and dry bags, but never used them. The little rain we received was welcome, and during one torrential downpour we were in the La Mona Grita bar in Ojochal, so no ponchos necessary! We did not hike, just walked along dirt roads in the Osa so just good walking shoes were fine. Water shoes for surfing. Sweaters were necessary for the two volcanoes and San Gerardo de Dota in the evening. Daytime highs along the coast were in the mid-30s Celcius, mid-90sF, so cool summertime clothing needed there. We brought two cameras, one with a 35X zoom lens, the other a waterproof point and shoot – neither of them expensive and they were fine. We got some excellent wildlife shots with the zoom lens – monkeys & macaws especially.
Scenery – We live on the Canadian west coast, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and mountains (some of them dormant volcanoes), so we are fortunate to see spectacular scenery on a regular basis. Yet we were still awed by what we saw in Costa Rica – from the wild beaches to the mountain jungle, the wildlife, and of course the volcanoes.
Driving & getting around – we loved exploring Costa Rica by car. We were prepared for an adventure and we got it! We always avoid driving on major highways even at home, and ironically the only time we ventured onto one in Costa Rica, it was gridlock and we were barely moving. The rest of the time we were either on paved two-lane roads that were mostly in good shape – with the odd wash-out (one lane gone!) – and plenty of Puente Angostos (short one-lane bridges). My research on Trip Advisor warned me to be patient – many of the Ticos are definitely not patient, with one notable bus driver a few inches off my rear bumper as we drove very slowly behind a slow-moving truck in the fog.
The road in Caba Matapalo is just about the worst I’ve ever driven on but the Osa is special, and a large part of that is because it is difficult to get there. It’s a good trade-off for sure.
But the real reason it takes so long to get anywhere while driving in Costa Rica is their school system. We rarely went more than a mile without seeing an “Escuela” sign – meaning the speed limit dropped from 60 kmh to 40 kmh or even 25 kmh. There are schools everywhere – with happy-looking children playing behind chain link fences surrounding their school.
We waved to Ticos everywhere – with our Canadian flag on our dashboard – and received a return wave and a smile every time.
WAZE was excellent. We did have a paper road map with us too – the National Geographic Adventure Travel Map for Costa Rica – and it came in handy during those few times that WAZE did not work well. A few times WAZE sent us off a main road to reconnect with it later, but that just got us into some real Tico neighbourhoods, and we never felt unsafe.
Safety – We drove about 1300 kms and we never felt unsafe. We remained aware of our belongings and kept our vehicle in sight as much as we could, but really no different than what we would do in a Canadian or US city.
As I finish this trip report, it is now late May, we’ve been home for almost a month and not a day goes by that we don’t talk about our trip to Costa Rica. We wish to thank the regulars on the Costa Rica forum - particularly soniatoronto whose postings about the Osa convinced us it was worth going there and was it ever! - who helped us plan an active yet relaxing vacation that gave us such a memorable time in this terrific country.