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Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

Swansea, MA
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Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

Day 1: Arrive Liberia airport. Rented a Toyota RAV 4 from Alamo, which was supposed to be a 4X4. Noticed the next day on a steep gravel road that the car was not performing well, only to find out that they had not given us the 4x4 that we paid for but a regular 2-wheel drive. Their response to the situation was “How could you tell?” We drove back to Alamo to get a 4x4. They first tried to give us a lesser model but when we insisted on getting the car that we paid for, we got a RAV 4. Lesson learned: when you get the car, look under the rear axle and make sure there is a driveshaft!

*We found having a 4x4 vehicle was essential!!! We visited a number of national parks that were located up very steep hills with loose gravel and dirt roads in poor condition... There were several situations that it was a necessity. Parts of the country are very mountainous. Only about 20% of the roads we traveled were paved. Make sure you have an excellent vehicle! When you are driving through the valleys there are places where I had no cell signal. You can’t assume that you will be able to call for help.

I highly recommend driving if you are up for the challenge. Costa Rica is a gorgeous country! The more that you can see of it the better. Best road map was National Geographic but many towns that were on road signs were not on this map. Supplemented this with Borch fleximap. We also had digital maps for our Garmin GPS that we compiled from sources on the internet. At http://mapcenter.cgpsmapper.com/ and http://rwsmaps.griffel.se/ you can download Costa Rica digital maps. Definitely don’t drive at night. We were in a situation where the road we were driving down was a steep 45 degree angle gravel hill when we noticed that the entire bottom of the road was completely excavated away! There was nothing to indicate that work was being done on this road. Luckily we stopped in time and after a few tense minutes my husband was able to turn the car around. If it was dark we would not have seen it in time.

Liberia:

Stayed at Posada El Encuentro which is located on the road leading up to Rincon De La Vieja National Park. Very neat and clean. Provided meals if needed. Tenderloin dinner is excellent. Luis and his wife are very accommodating.

Rincon:

Hiked to Cataratas Escondidas and Congrejo Falls in one day. I don’t recommend both the same day. The hiking in Rincon has a lot of hills and elevation changes. The escondidas hike is quite steep and rocky. Most of the time you are exposed to the sun. For better or worse there had to be 75 mile an hour headwind on the way up! It was slow going! Decided not to swim at the falls because the water was quite cold. Decided to hike to Congrejo Falls. After an exhausting morning we went swimming at the second falls. Also quite cold but refreshing after a hot day. To the left of the falls is a small warm-water thermal spring that empties into the pool.

Las Pailas Loop: Has some geothermal features. Latter half is hot and in the sun.

You need to be sure-footed to hike in this park. Along with the many elevation changes there are many rocks and tree roots to negotiate over.

Volcan Tenorio National Park: Stayed on night at La Carolina Lodge in order to do Rio Celeste hike the next day. The Lodge is…..interesting! It is in a beautiful location by a river. The accommodations consist of a large building to accommodate a group of people and separate cabins. I am convinced that I was in the worst cabin which happens to be located next to the stable. The cabin was the absolute minimal acceptable standard. It had a roof, toilet, sink, shower and bed. There was some electricity but the lodge was mainly lit by candles at night which was gorgeous. The night sky from here was fantastic….no light pollution. Went on a beautiful trail ride which was included on the rate along with 3 meals (rice, beans, chicken). Also included was a guided hike to Rio Celeste. We decided to do this on our own and I am glad that we did. If you have transportation, hiking in the national parks is not difficult. There was always a trail map available. Rio Celeste was my favorite hike in Costa Rica. Beautiful falls, soaked in natural hot springs!

Arenal:

Stayed at Lost Iguana…loved it!!! Beautiful resort and location. Weather was beautiful. Could see Arenal volcano from top to bottom although no lava to be seen. With binoculars you could detect an orange glow at the top at night.

La Fortuna Falls: beautiful, able to swim but very rough near falls. Continue on trail to the left to a second pool downstream that is calmer for swimming. Could see a canopy tour zip line with a view of the falls. I wished that I had done this here. I did my canopy tour in Monteverde where it was raining with poor visibility…what was I thinking??? While I am on the subject…We did the Selvatura tour in Monteverde which was highly recommended. I enjoyed it despite the dismal weather and the fact that they let my husband ram into a tree! Keep in mind that just because your equipment is safe doesn’t mean that you will be. It is being operated by people who make mistakes! On steep wires they use a rope and carabineer to slow you down to a stop. They neglected to do this on my husband’s turn and he hit the tree at high speed! He had only a minor knee injury but it could have been much worse! If you decide to do the zip wire, make sure you brake to slow down before the end, don’t trust the operators!

Venado caves: 45 minutes from La Fortuna. This is a wet cave. You need a change of clothes because you get soaked! They give you boots to wear. You can do some climbing and crawling through small openings if you desire…not required. Saw bats, cave spiders and tarantulas along with stalagmites and stalgtites.

Monteverde:

Drive to Monteverde on Rt 145 past Tilaran. Took road to left towards Viento Fresco Waterfalls (you can go either way; the roads join up farther down). You can take short hike and see four waterfalls (took us about 1 hour/ $10pp). There is a small pool for swimming with changing room and picnic area. After this we stopped at Florida Restaurant up the road. They advertise fresh trout and fresh sugar cane juice. This was the best meal I had on Costa Rica and the best fish I have ever eaten!! You actually go out back to a small pool and attempt to catch your own fish. If unsuccessful they net one for you. They squeeze the sugar cane right in front of you. I loved it!!! Beautiful drive to Monteverde!!!

Stayed in Monteverde Lodge: I really liked the hotel and location. Food was very good.

Very unique vegetation in this area. Due to a large amount of water vapor in the air we saw the most vibrant, beautiful rainbows I have ever seen. Was sunny at hotel but rained in cloud forest. I found this miserable!!! I endured it for the canopy tour/ hanging bridges but cancelled my trip to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. I did not want to hike in the rain when it was sunny in the surrounding area. Did night hike at Finca Ecological: 5 minute hike from the Lodge.

Montezuma:

Took Puntarenas Ferry to Paquera and drove to Montezuma. I couldn’t quite figure out what the scheduled ferry times meant. The 10:30 AM ferry actually left at 11:00. The boarding started at 10:30 so maybe that was it. Took larger ferry over and small ferry on the return. Small ferry is much preferred!!! Quicker loading and unloading. Newer cleaner ferry. If you take the larger ferry please note that once the ferry is preparing to dock it actually takes approximately 30 minutes before unloading begins. We prematurely lined up in the passageways to disembark in very hot, claustrophobic hallways and ended up waiting for 30 minutes. Ticket for car includes one passenger. Buy tickets for all other passengers. Other passengers must walk aboard; they cannot ride in the car.

Stayed at Ylang Ylang in Montezuma: Loved it! Very good food, but no beef or pork on the menu. Resort is short 10 minute walk down the beach. Only drawback is that water is a bit rough for swimming. Can swim at low tide but rough surf. Ocean water is very warm! Beautiful swimming pool.

Montezuma Waterfall is fantastic! You can do a difficult steep hike up to a second and third level but it was not worth it unless you want to jump from 30 or 40 feet into a pool below. The best/biggest waterfall is in the bottom section.

Tambor Falls which is a 3.5 KM hike down the beach from Ylang Ylang is not worth it!!!!! You need to go at low tide in order for the pool to be present and it is too small to swim in. Reclining, you could soak but very small, along with very small waterfall. Water in was green and not appealing. Very hot, long hike!!!

From Montezuma drove to San Jose for day trip to Pacuare for white water rafting. Stayed at Hotel Grano do Oro. Gorgeous hotel located in an extremely unappealing city (any early investors in razor wire are billionaires by now!!!). Great proximity to airport.

Paos volcano: very interesting to see! Was told at gate that volcano could not be seen due to clouds. We decided to pay to go in anyway. It was completely clear at the top!!!

Don’t listen to anyone.

Used Rios Tropicales for rafting. Great trip, very scenic, loved it! Very fun but not dangerous due to low water levels.

Loved Costa Rica!! Because of some very negative reviews about hotels that I planned on staying in I had somewhat lower expectations going in to this. I am happy to say that my trip exceeded my expectations in all areas. Hotels nicer than I expected and roads in better condition. My biggest complaint would be the restaurant service. As an American I am used to very quick service. Everyone takes their time in Costa Rica. We had to wait a long time for everything. Also, if you don’t ask for your check you will not get it. Even if you say that you don’t want anything else, they still don’t bring it. I was willing to pay extra gratuity in addition to the 10% that is added to the check but the service did not warrant it. The waiters seemed very miserable! Maybe because they are only getting tipped the 10% but if they want to get more they need to give better service.

When flying out of San Jose, no liquids or gels of any size or kind were allowed in carry on bags going though security. They posted US TSA “3-1-1” signs that say you can bring 3oz. containers, but then they take them! Despite an overhead announcement that you could buy liquids once inside the gate, they were searching all carry on bags by hand again before boarding and throwing out newly purchased liquids before letting you board the plane!

Maleku Tours
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Costa Rica Best Trips
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Issys Tours Costa Rica
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Cleveland, Ohio
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1. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

Thank you for posting this detailed report. We are interested in going to Rincon de La Vieja this summer. How many days did you spend in this area? How long was the drive to Posada el Encuentro from the airport?

I think I would like La Carolina but am afraid it is too rustic for my husband and son. Were the owners friendly? Were there easy hikes from the lodge? Could you swim in the river by the lodge?One of my prime reasons to go there is the Rio Celeste hike. I was glad to hear that it is easy to do on your own. Do you think this would be feasible one day from the Arenal area?

I would love to hear more about your travels in this area. It is hard to find recent info with specific logistics. (Drive times, lodging) It seems many people only go to Rincon on very long day trips in arranged tours.

Swansea, MA
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2. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

I know what you mean about there being little information for self drivers. Much of what I found on the internet was not that accurate. I expected longer drving times than I actually encountered.

I only stayed 2 nights at Posada El Encuentro. It is only a 20 minute drive from the airport. I spent two days at Rincon hiking. I would have liked at least another full day to do the hike to the summit. Apparently it takes 4 hours up and 3 hours back. The drive to La Carolina Lodge was an hour and 45 minutes. From here it was less than 30 minutes to Tenorio National Park for the Rio Celeste Hike. This is one of those drives where a 4x4 was a godsend! Very steep beautiful drive. The lodge is apparently US owned therefore, all of my correspondence with them was in English. You can imagine my surprise when very little english was spoken when we arrived but we could get by. They had a stone soaking pool next to the river that was filled with water from the river and heated by a wood fire about the size of a large jacuzzi. There was also a small deck where you could sit and steps leading into the river. I know there is a hike from the lodge that follows the river. Although simple, traditional food, the quality was good. There is a beautiful outdoor fireplace! We also saw some beautiful birds. Ask for the cottage by the river (not the barn!). You can do a day trip to Rio Celeste from Arenal but it would probably take you 2 1/2 hours each way. People recommended that I do it this way but I am glad that I didn't. Although I prefer staying in lodging that is upscale, the setting and location were great, especially for only one night. I have made the mistake of spending too much driving on vacation and I was not going to do that in Costa Rica. That is why it is so nice if you have you own transportation. We drove one way on this trip with no back tracking and were able to see alot more with low stress.

New York City, New...
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3. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

"Don't listen to anyone". Love it :) Great trip report, figlet. I'd be interested to know some of your backroad adventures...

There's actually a wealth of information out there on independent travel to CR -- you just need to find it, uh, independently. Sure, not all the info you read out there on the internets is going to be accurate, but put enough of it together and you start to see trends and know where to look for further clarification. One (wo)man's adventure is another's nightmare, and in CR this applies to everything from roads, to lodgings, to service to... The biggest key to success in seeking out the less/non-publicized places is the ability to be flexible. Some of the best discoveries you're bound to make may not be listed in any guidebook nor found in TripAdvisor Top 10 hotel listings. Also, while Figlet found one of these to be rustic but quaint, someone else may have completely sh*t themselves given the same encounter.

Royal Palm Beach, FL
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4. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

Thank you for this great post!! It came in handy as I am currently trying to plan our trip to CR very soon. The Lost Iguana looks like a beautiful resort. You sure knew what you were doing on your trip. Looks like you had a lot of fun.

Cleveland, Ohio
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5. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

Hi Figlit,

Thanks for the further info. We may try La Carolina this summer. (I"m still working on our final weeks itinerary) Knowing the travel times really helps put things in perspective.

Swansea, MA
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6. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

I totally agree with you misterjosh!! I am actually glad that I read all of the negative reviews about hotels etc. in Costa rica because I had low expectations and was thrilled when I found them untrue. I absolutely loved the trip to Costa Rica! People were very friendly and helpful (with the exception of Tabacon Hot Springs). Most of the people we encountered spoke English but knowing a few basics in Spanish was very helpful.

In terms of the driving times that I found shorter that expected, I am sure that had to do with us having a 4x4 vehicle. You can negotiate the roads much more effectively. It is worth the money for the safety.

Minneapolis
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7. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

figlet -- This is a terrific trip report! We have not gone to CR yet (family going this summer) but from what we've researched, you put together a great itinerary, and we love the do-it-yourself approach.

In fact, your approach leads us to ask a couple questions! We (2 adults and two kids (ages 5 and 7) ) are going to be in CR in July for two or so weeks. Part of the trip is in the La Fortuna area, and we will be accompanied by a CR driver (as close as "do it ourselves" as we felt comfortable with the kids in tow). We want to avoid package tours. The questions:

1. It has been extremely difficult, despite posts here and on Fodor's, to get info on whether Rio Celeste is OK to do independently (w/o guide). Your report seems to strongly indicate it is very doable independently, which is putting smiles on our faces! If we drive there, is there an obvious "entrance" or "trailhead" where e can get a map and hike in? Are the trails well-maintained and, if necessary, marked? Is it too strenuous for kids our age?

2. It has been equally difficult to get info on Vernado Caves. Do we need a guide there, and, if so, can one be hired near the caves when one arrives there independently? If no guide needed, can boots/any other equipment be easily rented on site? Is it OK for kids?

We really enjoyed your report. The kids give us a little less freedom to roam, but we love your approach and spirit!

Ay help on the above sincerely appreciated. Take care!

David/Marcy

Minneapolis

Mound, Mn
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8. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

"My biggest complaint would be the restaurant service. As an American I am used to very quick service. Everyone takes their time in Costa Rica. We had to wait a long time for everything. Also, if you don’t ask for your check you will not get it. Even if you say that you don’t want anything else, they still don’t bring it. I was willing to pay extra gratuity in addition to the 10% that is added to the check but the service did not warrant it. The waiters seemed very miserable! Maybe because they are only getting tipped the 10% but if they want to get more they need to give better service."

Pretty common everywhere down there. Considered rude to rush a diner. Just tell them you're in a hurry beforehand or ask for the check when they bring the food.

Swansea, MA
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9. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

Ptuty,

The Rio Celeste hike is located in Tenorio National Park. The entrance to the park is well marked. When you park at the rangers station you will pay the entrance fee and they will review the trails and give you a map. They have photos of sights that you will see and they will show you thier location on the map. Anyone that has done any hiking before and can follow a trail will have no problem doing this hike independently. As long as your children are athletic they should not have a problem. It is strenuous at times but not difficult or dangerous. The terrain is very hilly so the trail is not flat. You will find this in many areas of the country! The hike down to the falls is a very steep flight of stairs but well worth it. You will basically be hiking in to the farthest point which is the hot springs and then you will turn around and hike the same trail back. I believe the hike was appoximately 2 miles each way. We hiked in and then soaked in the hot spring and had lunch, then hiked out. If you self drive to the park a 4x4 is essential. The road is very steep and unpaved. It is worth it to have the extra margin of safety when exploring Costa Rica!

For Venado caves you have to have a guide which they provide. They also provide rubber boots and flashlights at no extra charge. I believe that the cost was $10.00 per person. We just showed up for the tour. I am sure that you can make a reservation if you want. Just remember to bring a change of clothes! You get soaked! At one point we standing under a waterfall. This is also fine for children. They gear the tour around the participants. It can be easy or hard depending on the route you go.

Minneapolis
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10. Re: Trip Report: 14 day self drive itinerary/ Just back!!

figlet -- Thanks so much for the response!! It gives us alot more confidence that we can drive to Tenorio and/or Vernado without discovering upon arrival that they can't be done independent of a tour/prearranged guide. Also glad to hear that our kids will be able to give those activites a shot. Both sound like unique and worthwhile experiences.

Again, really appreciate you responding to theis older thread -- they are questions we've been wondering about for months!

Take care.