First off, thanks to everyone for posting here - I learned so much and it prepared me very well for my vacation in Costa Rica!! We just returned from a fabulous ten day vacation and I thought I'd return the favor by posting my own trip report. Remember - this is just one couple's opinion, good or bad. I am trying to be as honest and balanced as possible. As background, we are two early 30-year-olds whose typical hotel taste is moderate - Sheratons, Marriotts, Hyatts kind of folks. So, here goes...
Overall, this was an amazing trip! The Costa Rican people were incredibly friendly and kind to us. We rented an SUV for the trip as we were driving up the coast and highly recommend it. We rented from Tricolor and they picked us up at the airport and rental was easy enough. The rate was as quoted (though they forgot we wanted an automatic so that took some extra time). Driving in CR is.... an adventure! Everything you read about horrible road conditions is accurate so be prepared! However, I would not do it any other way. We LOVED having our own car to be able to go at our own pace and enjoy the beautiful countryside. Potholes are incredible and plentiful, so be careful and drive slow. It will take you MUCH longer to get from one place to another than you probably anticipate so build in some extra time.
ATMs - a common question here but we did not have a need for them. We brought $2000 in cash and came home with about $700. We used credit cards without problem almost everywhere. I did hear from other guests that they could not use their ATM cards, though, and had problems getting cash.
Police - well, what we read is sadly true about the corrupt cops in CR. We were pulled over twice and neither time were we doing what they said we were. However, thanks to advice here, we did not give into their bribe offers and instead asked them to give us a ticket - both times, they let us go without argument. Glad I read about it! They were polite and nice to us about it, but it is a sad reality about cops targetting tourists for a quick bribe. Oh well.
Onto our stays...
We stayed here for our first night after a long flight. We stayed at Las Orquedias Inn. A very cute place but very, very difficult to find no matter how great your directions are!! We drove right past the right you take to get into it several times. Quite frustrating, and the area is very run down around it. But, the Inn itself is well maintained, very friendly staff, nice room, great dinner and drinks. I would definitely recommend this Inn if you are looking for a post or pre-flight crashing spot. Reasonably priced at about $100 per night.
From Alajuela, we drove down the coast to Manuel Antonio. This drive was an adventure (up and down mountain cliffs with no guardrails and trucks passing on curves!). But, once we got there - it was completely gorgeous. This was, by far, our favorite town during our stay based on surroundings alone. We stayed at Si Como No and it was incredible on all levels. I would highly recommend you spend a few extra bucks to upgrade to a superior or deluxe room so that you have a balcony facing the ocean. The views were incredible overlooking the rainforest out over the ocean. This hotel is beautiful and has fun for the whole family. There is a kids' pool and an adults-only pool, which is nice. The restaurant was great, drinks were great, people were great. Not a single complaint and I will definitely return to Si Como No!! We had monkeys and sloths hanging out right outside our room door, and spent about $200 per night for the room. In Manuel Antonio, the hotel arranged for us to have a guide into the National Park, which I would highly recommend. I don't think we would have seen anything without a guide as they know what to look for and where - so spend the extra money for a guide. We had a guy named Rudy and the hotel arranged it for us - and he was great. Very good English, and very good eyes in spotting monkeys, sloth, birds, spiders, iguanas, etc. Beautiful park, and very nice beaches inside the park (much nicer than the public beach). We surfed on the public beach and got ok waves but not the best. We ate at a restaurant called El Avion which was made from an actual crashed US Navy plane. Food was just ok, but drinks and atmosphere were excellent.
From Manuel Antonio, we drove up the coast to Jaco. We stayed at Club del Sol (Club del Mar gets more comments here, but they are sister properties and basically identical). This is a condo complex and it was beautifully maintained. We had a two bedroom, two bathroom condo for $128 a night. We were right across the road from a surf shop so we rented boards and headed down the street easily to a beach and excellent surf for beginners to intermediate level. The hotel is gated with a guard, which is good because... the area... is pretty scary at night. Jaco itself is not the nicest place I've ever seen and I will not return, but we had an ok time in the couple of days we were there. I can't recommend this town, though, as a good place to stop because it just seemed sketchy. We went to the Monkey Bar for drinks and were disappointed so just called it an early night.
From Jaco, we drove up the coast over to Tamarindo for the last five days of our vacation. We loved Tamarindo almost as much as Manuel Antonio but for totally different reasons. It is not a rainforest scene - more of a dry dessert-like atmosphere so you won't see the same types of wildlife or plantlife here, if that is what you are going for (though we did have howler monkeys poolside at our hotel). We stayed at El Diria. El Diria looks very nice from the outside... but it was a HUGE disappointment overall. The food was terrible, the drinks just ok, and our room was the size of a shoebox. Mind you, we got the most expensive room category they have (sunset ocean view) and it stunk. The room was not what we expected at all. The AC leaked all over our luggage and the shower alternated between scalding hot and freezing every 10 seconds. We changed rooms because of this and had the same problem in our next room. We met other guests who had also complained of this and we were all told "service has been called" but in our five days there, nothing changed. The room itself left much to be desired. Aside from being tiny, it lacked basic amenities like conditioner, ironing boards, hair dryers, etc. For $225 a night, we expected better. We also had ants in the bathroom in both of our rooms and were told "service has been called" which, of course, was not going to do anything. To say the food was bad is an understatement. It was the worst food I've ever had on a vacation. But, there are several good restaurants in the area so we just went elsewhere for food and it turned out to not be a big deal.
Tamarindo itself is a fun little town, full of shops, restaurants, hotels, bars, etc. We had great food at many places, but some that stick out were pizzas and drinks at Zulymar, dinner at Hotel Pasatiempo, steaks and lobsters at the restaurant in El Jardin Hotel (best food of our trip, hands down). This was a very cute town, lots of fun things to see/do. The beach leaves a lot to be desired (kind of dirty and very, very windy so laying out is not a pleasant experience with blowing sand). But, we surfed every day so it was not a big deal to us. Surf was great and we rented boards from Iguana Surf. The folks there were great, and the rates totally reasonable. I highly recommend this surf shop.
Scuba - we went scuba diving at Catalina Island (near Tamarindo). This was fun, but disappointing at the same time. Visability was terrible and we only saw some fish, sting rays, etc. We were told by others on the dive that they saw some white tipped sharks but we did not see them. We went with Pacific Coast divers and they were nice - safety definitely seemed a priority, which was nice to see since you never know what you are going to get!
The only real bad thing that happened on our trip was totally my fault but I mention it because I appreicate the courtesy of the Costa Rican people. We rented mopeds one day and I crashed mine into a truck, doing damage to the moped, truck, and myself. I was ok, but the damage was pretty bad. The folks whose truck it was could not have been nicer to us about it and were far more concerned with my well-being. A dent that would have easily cost us $500 in the US cost us $160 there. The moped rental shop (next to Iguana Surf) was very kind to us over it and only charged us for parts to the bike (around $70). All in all, I was so relieved at how it was handled, and I was so grateful for how nice the people were to us.
So, this was long, but I wanted to give out the info that I had in appreciation for all I received on this site. We had a wonderful vacation and will definitely return to Costa Rica!