My wife and I traveled with a friend in CR from 1/14-1/27/12 and had the time of our lives. To prepare I had followed this Forum for 1.5 years on a "daily basis". It was alot of work but a lot of fun. There was so much info provided I barely needed to post questions.
Thank you to those exceptional persons here who posted to assist others, and special thanks to the person here who first recommended CR Referrals and Catalina. This is not in any way intended to be an advertisement or beneficial to her business, but to someone who helped me so much over 1.5 years with advice and dozens of emails, I can certainly not object if that occurs. But this valuable tip is also to assist those persons planning a trip to CR and want assistance with the logistics of travel or more. I cannot recommend anyone more highly. She referred once to herself as a Travel Architect, and she was available to me close to 24 hours a day, both via email for months before the trip, and via cell phone in CR. It was as if she were personally with us making certain all her arrangements worked our smoothly. Working with her and this Forum and a guide book I chose all our own hotels, activities, and restaurants, and she put it all together for us adding the travel connections, making the hotel and activity reservations, buying the activity tickets, and setting us up with experienced guides/naturalists to get the most out of our trip. She may not be the best, but I doubt it there could be anyone better. And it was for probably less cost than if I did it all on our own, as I had done when younger and more adventurous on earlier trips to all corners of the world.
We flew into SJO and checked into the Adventure Inn near the airport. It was fine and we learned a lot by talking with other travelers over dinner and drinks. We explored a bit of central Alajuela. There is a decent supermaket off the Central Park for supplies. As learned on this Forum, we had a nice Tex-Mex meal at Jalapenos, with owner Norman (from Queens) helping us make the culture transition, followed by perhaps the best mocha cake we have had in our lives from Coffee Dreams a block away. Thank you forum person(s) for those recommendations.
We were picked up the next morning for our exclusive (just the 3 of us) tour by a luxury van with a/c on the way to Tortuguero. I could not believe that our friend with CR Referrals had essentually arranged for a 2 week tour of the country for really just the 3 of us plus knowledgeable guides. I certainly appreciated that when we at times encountered and quickly avoided tours of 30 or more persons. Our van stopped unscheduled at a banana plantation when we got the full naturalist explanation of the product, and also when they spotted a sloths or other wildlife in the trees. We had a nice lunch stop also. The scenery and the clouds in the mountains were unreal once we left San Jose. The real excitment began when the 3 of us were dropped off to take a small boat to Tortuga Lodge in Tortuguera. Our guide pointed out so much exotic flora and fauna our heads were spinning with the new strange names. We were welcomed at the dock of Tortuga Lodge by the staff with drinks. The place was an isolated jungle paradise. At first we thought we were the only guests but the others were out doing activities. We relaxed at the pool by the waters' edge, had drinks and an excellent dinner, as the magnificent showers briefly came and went. It was hot and humid, but then again, we were in paradise.
We had a very early morning tour of the Lodge grounds the next morning. The flora and fauna were stunning. With another couple we took a morning canal tour with Angelo and we were blessed with so many animal and weird orchid sightings I was glad there would not be a biology or botany quiz at the end of the day. It was amazing for example how he could sight animals and a boa constrictor in a tree a foot away from us and we could not at first see anything. This was without question one of the best days of my life. We came to rest in a tiny canal just large enough for the small craft, stayed there with the engine off, and the jungle and its sounds and inhabitants came to us. Later in the day we took a boat into town for a couple of hours to shop and view the Caribbean.
On the day the 3 of us left, again, we had our own boat, and Sylvia (Assistant Manager) and much of the hotel staff came out to say goodbye. This time, we, the educated travelers, pointed out all the exceptional flora and fauna to Angelo on the trip out. Our luxury van for the 3 of us was waiting, with a driver and a biologist who explained much of the country's eco-system to us on the way to a restaurant Catalina had arranged. We had lunch while they waited until our next driver/guide pulled up to take us to Arenal/La Fortuna. We kind of had to pinch ourselves that we were staying in such a nice place, El Silencio del Campo. The private cabin, the hot spring pool with the bar and Alberto's special drinks were some of many reasons to stay there.
That night we took an evening tour of a Biological Center to observe the activity of the nocturnal snakes and frogs when most active, but I don't recall its name. It was just a zoo, and while at first it did not seem like it would be worthwhile, it began what was a bit of a love affair and appreciation with the remarkable small frogs of CR. We had an excellent dinner at Don Ruffino, but it was not a place for locals and though expensive it was worth it.
The next day we were picked up early in a van with the staff of Sky Adventures (I told Catalina I wanted early before anyone else was in the park and she certainly accommodated us) on their way to work. We arrived even before it fully opened and had the trails all to ourselves for what was about a 4 hour hike with an excellent naturalist (a delightful young woman who I regret I forgot her name). We went slow and she pointed out everything of interest to us. The waterfalls were wonderful, and to experience something like that, just by ourselves, in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, it was so exciting I wanted to jump out of my skin. I wear a leg brace but the trail was fine. I am afraid of heights but the suspended bridges were not a problem. We finished our hike in the butterfly garden. We don't zip-line but we did take the gondola up and down in that area. I admit we did enjoy talking with and watching the mostly horrified zip-liners start their tour.
The town of La Fortuna was very nice. We really enjoyed our dinner at La Choza de Laurel (I never had chicken so tender before that it melted in your mouth). It was nice to eat at a big open air restaurant with locals. We had another dinner at Benedictus Steak House near our hotel. Our friend is a pizza nut and for any others of you out there, you really can get decent pizza all over CR. The shops in town were very nice and the wood crafts were exceptional.
We did join a bunch of tourists, first in a medium sized bus and then in a boat for the scenic trip across Lake Arenal, a beautiful man-made lake. On the other end, people were assigned to different vans for back-shattering (but fun) trips to different locations, ours being Monteverde/Santa Elena and The Rustic Lodge. The CR main highways are fine, and the other roads, well, you will see for yourself. Although traveling throughout much of the small country like we did enabled us to see and experience quite a lot, with sights and places of interest pointed out by our drivers.
Jose at the Rustic Lodge was an incredible host, and seemed to know everything and everyone in the area. His knowledge, desire to be helpful, and friendliness added considerably not only to our fabulous experience, but also to the kind feelings we developed towards the people of the country. Many of them are very well aware of and proud of the remarkable global treasure of a country they reside in.
The town of Santa Elena was right down the road or a quick taxi ride. As had been recommended many times in this Forum, not that taxi drivers are out to cheat you, but either always request that a meter be used or the price agreed in advance to avoid any problems at the time payment is due. There is nice shopping in town. Our 2 best dinners were at De Olivo (maybe our best all around CR meal; honey BBQ'ed braised pork ribs, mmm) and at Trio. The chefs of CR really know how to prepare sea bass. Our friend is a vegetarian and had no problem eating anywhere. At some locations we notified the restaurants of that in advance, and they all accommodated his dietary needs with special dinners.
It is true as my guide book said, that Selvatura Park in Monteverde was a one great convenient spot to work in much of what you may want to experience in CR. We got there very early as it opened, and there were 7 of us with our exceptional and skilled guide/naturalist Oscar who was determined to have us see a Quetzal, and imagine our thrill when he was successful, as well as the dozens of other stunning birds, mammals, and tropical plants he found for us. I am sure they have many skilled guides there, but we were very fortunate to have been assigned to his tour. You will not see anything on that tour without a guide! And the hanging bridges were a thrill in themselves. The hummingbird garden and the butterfly gardens were amazing, and the reptile house was worth it, although we had already seen much of what was there in the wild. For someone with a brace on their leg their trails were much easier than Sky Adventure in Arenal. When we returned from our hike of 3 or 4 hours the place was mobbed with tour buses. Get there as early as possible, and even towards the end of our hike the noise generated from the large crowds did not help with the animal sightings. We are fascinated by hummingbirds, and we can recommend both Selvatora's Hummingbird Garden and the garden by the Hummingbird Gallery (nice store) near the entrance to the Monteverde Biological Park.
We took a taxi from the Rusic Lodge to the Monteverde Biological Park (there was a Quetzal conveniently sitting in the parking lot for the tourists), and from there walked back to the town of Santa Elena. Our stops included the Cheese Factory (try the ice cream), CASEM (the women's cooperative craft store), Stella's Bakery, etc. An exceptional tour that we had done out of Monteverde was the Don Juan Coffee Plantation. We learned so much that we had not known about a drink we have been enjoying all our lives. Again, to avoid crowds and the large tour buses plan on getting to your tours early.
The 3 of us were picked up with our own van and driver to Manuel Antonio. Man, are the 2 beaches in the national park gorgeous, and the public beach isn't exactly ugly either. What a nice way to spend a day sitting at the beautiful public beach in a lounge chair, under an umbrella, with people offering to fetch you drinks for a reasonable price. Yes, there were some people on the beach selling souvenirs, but they were really not a bother. On the way to Manueal Antonio the ride through the countryside and the towns was interesting, and our guide was very informative. We decided to do our own tour in the national park, mostly to see the beaches. We loved our hotel The Falls Resort. It was very luxurious, living in the midst of a small tropical jungle. The iguanas, Jesus Christ lizards, and geckos enjoyed the grounds as much as we did, with the trees full of tropical birds flying by. It was a nice place to end our trip in luxury. Location and value-wise it was incredible, and if you do not require an ocean view, I can recommend it very highly. After all, the restaurants have perfect views of the Pacific and the remarkable sunsets, not to mention the 2 for 1 happy hour drinks. Some notable meals there were Cafe Agua Azul, Rafaels Terrazos, Barba Roja, and Kapi Kapi. The breafast at the hotel was so good and filling, no lunch, except maybe a snack, was needed. For my personal tastes, the best drink, with or without alcohol I had in all of CR, was the Espresso Shake at Cafe Milagro. The hotter and sweatier you are, the better it tastes. The tour of the mangroves was beautiful and very interesting. Juan was an exceptional guide and we learned much about Costa Rican life from talking with him. On 2 of our 4 mornings at the hotel, a large troop of monkeys slowly made their way through the grounds to the delight of all the guests. That was quite an exceptional and unexpected wildlife encounter. Did either Catalina or the usual folks on this Forum arrange that for us?
Unfortuantely I have to leave town for a week due to a family illness. Shortly after I return I will comment on the specific hotels and restaurants we frequented. Just some additional quick comments:
- we did change money, and most ATM's dispensed both dollars and colones. If you are used to US dollars, at the current exchange rate colones are very easy to get used to. There were very few times that colones only could be used, and while probably not at the best conversion rate, dollars could be used almost everywhere. Many, many of the prices encountered were in dollars. After all, we really were mostly in tourist areas.
- my wife used Avon Skin So Soft for bugs, and I used that and Repel 100 (almost 100% deet). Between us we got maybe 7 bites in all our trip. Bugs were not bad anywhere, and if we had not used anything, it would not have been that bad anyway.
- the sun is very strong and use protection.
- we bought and brought clothes for rain and we hardly encountered any. An emergency 1 or 2 use poncho for $1.50 at Target is probably all you may need for the rain at the time of year we went. They say there are 2 seasons in CR, rainy (when we went) and very rainy.
- all of our hotels provided a fine breakfast, and Tortuga Lodge provided all 3 meals a day.
- I drank the tap water everywhere we went and felt fine. No one of the 3 of us had any stomach distress.
- pack light. Each of our hotels had very reasonable and fast return laundry service.
- all of our hotels had computers and internet connections.
- the people behind the desk at each of our hotels were exceptionally helpful and would do anything to make any arrangements or phone calls to assist to.
Pura Vida all. Thanks again to this Forum and Catalina for the trip of a lifetime.