You know what separates Amazon and Zappos and Nordstrom's from the rest of the wanna-be giants of commerce? It's not just their extraordinary service that makes you feel like Cleopatra carried aloft by a litter of servants. It's what they do when something goes a little bit amiss and how they respond to it that makes it clear they're about excellence, and keep score not just in revenues but in happy customers. Read on to the end to see what I mean.
Planning a trip with Costa Rica Expeditions is similar to creating a profile of your likes and dislikes and deal-breakers at dating sites –but with a higher rate of success. That's essentially what Luis, my travel planner with Costa Rica Expeditions, did for my trip in July.
First, after I contacted the company and told them my dates of travel and general interests, they responded with survey forms and questionnaires to narrow down my interests. From that data, they crafted a personalized tour which, for lack of a better metaphor, was a travel version of choose-your-own adventure. (I was also given a choice of price levels -from budget to moderate to lux. I chose moderate, as my expected lotto win had not come through yet.) They created a path for me through Costa Rica that included volcanoes, lakes, waterfalls, butterfly sanctuaries. spas, the cloud forest, and the beach -which is exactly what I wanted but would have taken me a month of studying Lonely Planet, and back issues of National Geographic to figure it out on my own.
While Costa Rica overall markets its eco-tourism with a skill and sincerity higher than other countries, the Costa Rica Expeditions company is even more attuned to it, with a refined sense of what you'd like to see, from blue morpho butterflies to sloths inching their way up trees to quetzal birds strutting like supermodels.
But it wasn't just the sightseeing ideas that they excelled at. If I had stopped dealing with the company at that point I would have been impressed but, like a five-course dinner where each succeeding course gets better than the one before it, the next step after payment (since I was connecting and planning this with fewer than 30 days before my scheduled arrival, they asked for payment in full via credit card, rather than partial payment followed by another. That might have been an issue -it wasn't as it turned out -but they said they could be flexible if I couldn't do it in one shot.)
Before I left, Luis sent me a detailed itinerary that was a model of compact information, listing your lodgings, the number of nights you'll be in said lodging, activities you've planned through them (and other activities you might wish to explore), departure times, to your next step, and, the cherry on top of the ice cream, a detailed list of what to bring -e.g., sunglasses, sunblock, binoculars, hiking shoes and so forth. In each case I found these suggestions to be as perfectly targeted as a hole-in-one.
After I landed at the at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose and passed through Immigration and baggage claim, I met up with a Costa Rica Expeditions representative outfitted in an easily-recognized orange short. She and the driver whisked me to my hotel while they handed gave me a packet full of information on all the places I would be seeing and staying at, plus a copy of my itinerary and a pre-paid exit tax so that i didn't have to waste time in line when i left the country. It was small but much appreciated service.
The hotels chosen - the Studio Hotel, the Volcano Lodge, Monteverde Lodge, and the Parador- were, for the most part, far better than I expected. All combined superb design, location, staffs, dining, and often, knock-your-hiking-socks-off views to make place each memorable.
The activities they arranged captured the essence of Costa Rica’s lush flora and fauna. Among them were the Danaus Eco-Center Hike, the La Fortuna Waterfall, and the Ecotermales La Fortuna spa, the Monteverde Cloud Forest. These left an indelible impression, of Costa Rica the same way the Van Gogh Museum left me with an imprint of Amsterdam. No wonder parts of the Jurassic Park stories/movies were set there: The howler monkeys barked like a Rottweiler whose house I was breaking into when I entered the cloud forest morning. Sloths, stomachs full on the leaves that make them as drunk as an endless Happy Hour, slowly inched up a tree to get a Coppertone tan from the sun's rare appearance. Below them stood trees that nature, in their Daliesque lack of sanity, were sculpted in the shape of massive giraffes and giant praying mantises. Other trees were as crowded as a Tokyo subway car at rush hour with 2,000 or more plants and flowers living on them. Vines that could have given a kraken's tentacles an inferiority complex strangled other trees, drinking their juices like arboreal vampires, leaving skyscraper-tall cadavers of bark as hollow inside as the tube inside a roll of paper towels. Quetzals flew overhead, their plumage an Indian chief's headdress the colors of Easter eggs. Far below on the ground, the cloud forest itself glows like a Hollywood glamor photograph from the 40s in an infinite kaleidoscope of greens: lime, moss, absinthe, emerald, four-leaf clover, Incredible Hulk, and Kermit the Frog. Leaf cutter ants march single file on the forest's muddy paths, their pincers holding fragments of leaves aloft like flags. A group of caterpillars assume the shape of a tarantula to deceive predators, then when they move, reformat in the profile of a snake.
The only problem I encountered was at the trip’s end at Manuel Antonio, where I wanted to put in some beach time, because it's hard work having fun. My final lodge there, the Parador, was (comparatively) mediocre. It was much less enjoyable than the previous rooms they had arranged.
I could have accessed the main beach area in the Manuel Antonio park but I arrived later on a Sunday, and waited a few hours for my room (the beach closes at 4, apparently) and Monday the park is completely closed. Since I left on a Tuesday, that negated the whole beach part of my planned trip.
The secondary beach at the Parador was also unpleasant; I would have changed plans if I had been aware of the so-so room at the Parador, and the limited beach opportunities.
When I alerted the company about this, they plied me with sincere apologies and several follow-up letters asking for a more elaborate critique. The more I wrote, the more they responded until we were going back and forth like a tennis match. (They even sent me a sizable supply of artisanal Costa Rican coffee as a thank-you for my input.) Their top-down devotion to improving their service makes me confident recommending them the same way you recommend an Amazon or a Zappos or a Nordstrom. They get customer service deep in their DNA. Like a tailor of travel, they will cut and measure your trip until it fits you perfectly.
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