Iâve used this forum and some messaging of users to come up with an itinerary. I thought I would share some experiences and maybe it will help someone. I hope this isnât too long.
We arrived in SJO around noon, then made it thru customs in probably 5 minutes. We stopped at the duty free and picked up some rum(I thought they had great prices) and then picked up our luggage and went to the exit. The guys here are pushy and aggressive. One guy asked who I was looking for and then acted like he was with them. He wasnât. He grabbed my wifeâs bag and started pulling it. He did bring us to the Vamos guy but wouldnât leave till he got a tip. Vamos was awesome and I would definitely recommend them. I read a bunch on here about insurance and decided to bite the bullet and just get full coverage. The shuttle to their location was quick and after a few minutes we were out the door in a great 2019 Mitsubishi 4WD. Except for the 2km stretch of road leading to the lodge, the roads are perfect and any car could use them. The only time I think a 4WD would be remotely necessary is that small stretch leading to the lodge if the weather was really bad. Even then, it probably isnât required.
Our first 4 days were at Arenal Observatory Lodge and the drive there was a pretty easy 3 hours. The roads to La Fortuna were awesome. We stopped about an hour into the drive at a âsodaâ and had an amazing lunch. 2 big plates with 2 sodas for $11. Canât beat that. Once in La Fortuna we did stop at a market and pick up a couple small things then headed to the lodge. The lodge is pretty awesome. The property, trails, and wildlife are amazing. The rooms are great... but... no AC and no TV. The views from the room, priceless. We ate at the lodge multiple times and the food is just great. The buffet breakfast is fantastic and extremely filling... a great way to start the day. We dinner dinner here as well and were very pleased, plus a good happy hour.
For activities we have walked the grounds on our own, and today did the lodge tour. It was free, and fantastic. The guide was awesome and the 2 hour hike was great. Lots of photo opportunities. Waterfalls, frogs, lizards, toucans... everything you can imagine. All sorts of wildlife, birds and plants/flowers. Weâve also seen monkeys. Yesterday we went to the Sloth Park. It was awesome. It was a 2 hour expedition and we saw frogs, toucans, lizards, and many sloths. Babies to grandparents. I would definitely recommend it. It was $35/pp. We ate lunch in La Fortuna twice and enjoyed both places. Everyone has been extremely nice and respectful and we have felt welcomed everywhere. The pool on site is very nice, but cold. The hot tub is also very nice, but very hot. :) Canât please everyone.
One of my objectives here was photography and I think Iâve taken over 1000 pictures and probably put check marks next to everything I wanted to get in less than 2 days. Pretty incredible. Iâve also flown my drone a couple times without incident and had no issues... got some great shots of the volcano as well. It rained pretty good yesterday late afternoon, but it only lasted for an hour or so.
We definitely enjoyed our stay at the lodge, and after 4 nights headed off to Arco Iris Lodge in Monteverde. Here is where Iâll change my 4 wheel drive opinion. While not required, it can help. The drive around the lake was just beautiful and peaceful. Everything is green... The countryside is just beautiful. About halfway around the lake the beautiful paved road turns to unpaved gravel roads. While not terrible, it does slow you down and makes it bumpy at times. No worries, itâs an adventure.
Arco Iris Lodge was quite nice. Santa Elena is a small, but cute town. We stayed here for 4 nights as well, and I would agree with mlmdaisy that this was probably a day too long. We did take a swinging bridge tour and was really just amazed with our guide. She was fairly young, but was just a wealth of knowledge about nature and Costa Rica. We also did the gondola ride and it was ok. Unfortunately my wife got ill during our trip (started probably day 2). At day 6 we looked for medical help. We talked to a pharmacy and asked how we could get a prescription... I read somewhere that some pharmacies had doctors... nope, not here. They did refer us to a Drâs office in the small shopping center and we had such a positive experience with them. There were 2 Drâs there and we talked with both and then she was examined by one. He was thorough and came away with the diagnosis we suspected (upper respiratory infection). We discussed treatment options and agreed on a med. He wrote out a detailed script with some different things we could try. I texted that to my daughter, a RN, and she said yep, thatâs a good drug. The pharmacy experience was also great. He was very helpful. What started out as a scary experience getting medical attention in a foreign country turned out to be awesome. We did chill the next 2 days, but ate at some of the restaurants in town. We absolutely fell in love with the local food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner... beer and rum(for me).
We got up on our departure day and picked up some food at the local bakery and headed off to Manual Antonio. The road out was rough going and seemed very remote. We were driving down the sides of mountains on these really crappy roads with no one there. We both thought at times that Waze did us wrong, but about an hour or so later we popped up on a paved road and the rest of the drive to Manual Antonio was pretty smooth, but about 3.5 hours.
We splurged here and stayed at Arenas Del Mar. They had a buy 3 get one free special and it was really an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone. The staff is amazing... helpful and just so nice. The food is fantastic. The beaches and pools are awesome. Not sure Iâve ever stayed at a place this nice... We booked a park tour from them and it was great. Again, the guide just made the difference. Iâm assuming they go there enough, and communicate with their guide friends, to know where some things are, but he also spotted things I would never see. We got lots of great pictures thru his scope too. The highlight of this was the beach and the monkeys. I could have stayed there for hours. They are hilarious. They play with each other, clean each other, try to steal stuff from people at the beach, and just generally are great entertainment. Itâs like a behind the scenes tour at a zoo, except you are there living it in nature.
We took a day trip to Dominical. I googled best Costa Rican Breweries and one there came up, so we decided to check it out. Feugo Brewery was awesome. They had about 10 beers of their own and we tried a couple. The restaurant is simply beautiful. Dominical was very low key and pretty small, but they had a market/craft show that day that bussed in a bunch of people.
On check out day we drove back to SJO and stayed at a DoubleTree for our early 7am flight and caught their 4am shuttle. No issues on the drive back, or returning the rental car. Vamos charged me exactly what they said they would.
Things we learned:
Costa Rica is beautiful. Every place is so green. Everybody was very nice, and we never felt unsafe. Most places had someone that spoke some english, but we always managed, and we learned a little Spanish.
Bring lots of singles. They are good for tips and we were surprised with some tolls. Every place took US Dollars, but change varied. Singles helped us minimize change.
We never exchanged currency. Amex was widely accepted, but occasionally I had to use a Visa.
Gas was easy/convenient and everyplace was full service... fancy that.
Tipping was confusing. Some places took my card and just gave me a receipt with the 10% taken off for service. Some places allowed me to add an additional tip. When they did, I usually added the 10% number they gave me and rounded up.
I flew my drone several times and had no issues. I try to be cautious... not a lot of people around, no major obstacles, and be safe. Got some awesome pictures. I did see a guy in the Manual Antonio park holding his drone talking to several police. He didnât look happy. Not the place to fly IMO.
Not sure you need to use a Costa Rica gps unit.... The one I got was dying/dead at our arrival locations. I eventually started using my phone (iPhone on TMobile) and it worked fine.
The food is great. Drank tap water and never had issues. Really liked the local food and ate at those places whenever we could. The pineapple was probably the best Iâve ever had.
Duty Free... It actually worked well. I did like they Costa Rica Rum, and since I bought some before I left to try out I knew the price and it was at least half the price at the duty free store. I bought 3 bottles for about $35 and made sure they put it in a clear sealed bag. When I got to Atlanta I explained what I was doing, they said no problem. At security they cut the bag, and tested each bottle... no problemo, and then put them back in the bag and resealed it. Made it home with no issues.
I came here with a lot of questions still out there and it was an exciting trip. Special thanks to mlmdaisy who gave us some great ideas/thoughts. Again, hope this wasn't too long and maybe some will find some use with it.