We are a mid-60s couple in average physical shape, who took the challenge to visit Costa Rica on our own (with lots of help from TA), and we did a fly-and-drive, book-your-own vacation. Along with the other posts and trip reports, I hope that our experience will help others plan their upcoming trips and also provide some opportunity to reminisce about trips taken.
Travel Dates: November 17th - December 1st, 2012
Things we were unprepared for:
1. Rental car. As frequent travellers, we expected a relatively new, shiny, updated rental car. Didn't happen - which was a good thing. We rented via Vamos Rent-a-Car and had a FABULOUS experience. I had requested a Suzuki Jimny, we got something similar. What we didn't expect: a rental car with dings and damaged fenders and side panels, roll-up windows (not electric), a manual transmission (which we were fine with), a CD/radio that didn't work. There are good reasons that all of these things were actually in our favor: 1) we definitely blended in :-) 2) our gas mileage was terrific! 3) we would still be somewhere undetermined without the GPS they insisted we have. We whole-heartedly recommend Vamos - you can't get any better.
2. Tico Culture. No matter what you read on TA, the Tico culture is more friendly, more helpful, happier, and more willing to share their culture than we were prepared for. We had read that Ticos are welcoming and pleasant....that doesn't do justice to the reality, which is so much more. We had a total stranger stop in the middle of a town to help us jump our car when the battery was dead; we had a young teenager whose English was only so-so do her very best to translate for us; we had another total stranger, a farmer in his pick-up truck, offer to lead us to the main road we had missed (which took 15 minutes or more). Comidas were like going home for a meal with relatives you hadn't seen in a while. There are no end to the stories we can tell.
3. Roads. You will read on TA that the roads sometimes are difficult to navigate, that the new highways are great, that you should be prepared for washouts in rainy season, etc. If you live in or near a city, there is NOTHING that will prepare you for the roads in this country. It is true that the new highways are great. Getting to the new highways is something else. We drove all over the country - our best driving experience was definitely the new highways. But the most INTERESTING experience was the road to/from Monteverde. The vistas are, indeed, magnificent .... especially if you are the passenger. The roads in and around Monteverde make US cowpaths look like a smooth ride....and it's worth every bump and jostle. :-) The easiest way to start out driving on the CR roads is to consider yourself fortunate that you will not only (eventually) get where you're going, but will have a Costa Rican massage along the way. :-)
4. Tico Drivers: Costa Ricans are among the most wonderful people on God's earth - until they get behind the wheel of a car. Our advice: pull over and let them pass....all you'll see is the dust that they'll leave behind.
A quick synopsis of the places we visited and where we slept:
1. SAN JOSE is a typical city, at least until you get to the Central Market. The Central Market is a single building with rows upon rows of storefronts and little places to eat. They sell everything from tee shirts to butchered meat to nuts to souvenirs. It is similar to being in an open-air market in Turkey - only this is inside. You can get great prices on anything Costa Rican, and it's a cheap place to buy souvenirs. Outside the Central Market is a cacophony of noise and color - vendors hawking their Pop Rocks/ fruit/ whatever, groups of Ticos out to get the best deals; employees calling out to passersby to come into their store for the absolute BEST values....all at once. Add the bright sunlight, the traffic on the cross-streets, and a lot of people -- and there you have the Central Market. This was the most notable place in San Jose that we experienced, although there are many other things to see and do in the city.
2. SANTA ANA is on the outskirts of San Jose, and we found it a good place to stay on our first and last nights in the country. It is out of the city itself, is close to whatever you might need, and the Hotel Luisiana, where we stayed, had the most comfortable bed we had along the way. We were within walking distance of restaurants, etc. We recommend the hotel.
3. OROTINA must be the fruit capital of Costa Rica. We saw fruits/vegetables that we'd never seen, bought some, tasted others, had fabulous Cosadas at a restaurant called Tropical, and totally enjoyed the indulgence of the men working at the fruit stands who didn't speak English but were more than happy to open, clean and provide us with ready-to-eat fruit. Wow, what interesting "conversations" and experiences we had in Orotina!
4. I have to put LA FORTUNA and ARENAL together, because our first two nights were spent outside of La Fortuna at the Tree Houses Hotel. Staying in a real tree house was something I'd always wanted to do, so we did! It was a good experience, given the rain at night and the howling monkeys, and breakfast was wonderful AND accompanied by bird feeders that attracted the most colorful and varied birds we'd ever seen. We recommend the Tree House Hotel, as long as you are willing and able to climb lots and lots of steps, and are prepared for tight accommodations. (What else would you expect in a tree??)
We moved on to Arenal, and stayed at our only "resort," the Arenal Manoa Hotel (which was lovely). If you consider this hotel, be aware that the tour buses also consider it. The grounds were lovely, they had hot springs on-site (which was good, since crowds aren't our thing), and the accommodations and food was really good.
5. MONTEVERDE was our most "interesting experience" because we hadn't remembered that the getting-there part of the trip would be adventurous. We bumped and jostled our car over the mountain roads and landed in the town of Monteverde. We stayed at THE ABSOLUTE BEST B&B in the area - Casa Batsu. This B&B is owned and operated by Carlos and Paola, and was the best and biggest surprise of our trip. Carlos knows EVERYONE - anything you want to know or do, Carlos is happy to arrange.
6. JACO was our next stop, and we rented a condo from a friend's mother. It was a typical beach town with lots of young people, parties and night action - nothing that was appropriate or appealing to us old folks - but the beaches were nice and the town had interesting shops.
7. UVITA and DOMINCAL were gorgeous. Much less developed, much more pristine and natural, we stayed at TikiVillas - an excellent choice. Be prepared, however, that you have to have a 4x4 to get up the driveway, and then there are 58 steps to climb up to the "lobby" area - and that's before you even get to your own individual villa. That said, this is a first class nature-is-everything place to stay, very private and very magical as you find yourself on the open veranda of your villa (no windows) overlooking the tops of trees and beyond, to the sea.
Our favorite things activities (remember, we're mid-60s!!):
1. The LA FORTUNA WATERFALL is beyond amazing. You have to carefully descend 480+ moss-covered, uneven stone steps to get to the bottom of the waterfall, and yes - you have to climb back up the same steps. BUT once you see the pool at the base of the waterfall and IF you enter the pool (one of us did, the other is a chicken! :-)), you will have one of the most amazing experiences of a lifetime.
2. The ARENAL VOLCANO TOUR is nothing - the volcano hasn't been active for over a year, and regardless of when you go there is no red lava (despite the advertisements) to see. However, if you pay the few dollars to go into the gates, the gardens and grounds are beautiful and are easy to walk. We enjoyed the natural beauty of the flora and fauna and were happy to have walked this area (in the rain, too!).
3. ZIP LINING was my #1 thing to try.....i just sounded exciting. We went with a company, Sky Tram and Sky Trek, for this experience. I hadn't taken into consideration how high we would be, or how many ziplines we would take, or basically everything else. I just knew I wanted to do it. The young guys working for Sky Tram and Sky Trek (you can just ride the tram to the top and back down, or you can zipline down) were fabulous. The experience was beyond my wildest dreams, even after watching several youtube videos. Everyone should try this, even if you're afraid of heights and speed, like I am - because I loved it!!
4. The CANO NEGRO boat tour was a relaxing half day trip down the Rio Frio, technically along the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. If you are interested in wildlife at all, this is where you should go.....the guides were able to point out 3 different species of monkeys, caymans, more colorful birds than we expected, and even a sloth (which are very difficult to spot). The boat was covered with an open front, so sun exposure was up to each person. The tour was followed by some local refreshment - very good!
5. MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK is very difficult to explain, and not as we expected, despite reading reviews and websites. This park is actually divided into two parts: the first is a relatively small wildlife park, where guides carry telescopes and tripods and point out wildlife that you would never notice on your own. Walking through this part of the park does not require a guide, but without a guide you will miss almost everything. We saw a grasshopper so small that it would have easily fit on top of my little finger and shone brightly with all its iridescent colors - that we would have totally missed without our guide. The second part of the park was a surprise - as you come down the path at the last hill, there before you is one of the most beautiful beaches we've ever seen (actually rivaled only by the beach in Portugal at Cascais). The water is clean, beautiful, and could serve as a movie set, it was so perfect! A shout out to our guide, Juan Bremes - he was the BEST.
6. BALLENA NATIONAL PARK is another one of those surprises. The word "ballena" means "whale" in Spanish, and there is a section of the shoreline that is shaped like a whale's tail. You can walk along that section when the tide is right, which is magical. We also went out on a whale-watching, dolphin sighting boat tour, which included snorkeling - we saw a bunch of dolphins very close to the boat, but didn't see any whales (although there had been sightings of whales and their calves the day before). The snorkeling was in a rocky area, where the brightly colored fish popped out from behind the rocks and surprised us more often than not.
7. DON LULA's HORSEBACK RIDE TO THE NAUCAYA FALLS was one of the best day-trips we've ever done. The horses were well taken care of, which was important to us, and they were familiar with the muck of the trails and the steep climb of some of the paths - which meant we only had to sit there and occasionally stop our horses from grazing on nearby leaves. We rode horseback for about a hour or so, stopped for a wonderful breakfast, got back on the horses and rode another portion of time before dismounting. Then we walked for about half a mile along a well-maintained path, to the Naucaya Falls.....four waterfalls that flow with deafening sound down to the pool at the bottom, which is the place we were walking to. The current was impossibly strong, the water was perfect in temperature and clarity, and you could grab the inflated tire tube tied to a rope and either swim or pull yourself hand-over-hand or have one of the guys pull you, to the rocks over which the water flowed. Then you could - if you are young, brave and more adventurous than we are - climb up and dive off the rocks into the waterfall pool. I can only say WOW when I remember this adventure. Then you're back on the horses, stopping for lunch, and then back to the cars. WE HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS - it's one of the best bargains around, and definitely one of the most memorable things you will ever do!
If anyone has any questions or wants more information, we would be happy to help in the TripAdvisor spirit. Our trip would have not been nearly as much fun without the important, informative help of the folks here on TripAdvisor --- thanks to all of you!!