Trip Report – traveling in late January and early February 2011
Day 1: We arrived late at the San Jose. The airport is small, making a meet-up with our two friends on another flight very easy. There is no ATM service at night in the airport, so be prepared. Hotel Villa Bonita had a car waiting for us. It cost $15 and was worth it to have transportation lined up. The driver was really great…informative and fun. He took us to the hotel, which cost us about $90 for the four of us. We decided to stay in Alejuaha because we would be heading north in the morning. This saved us quite a bit of time by not having to drive all the way in to the city. Plus, Hotel Villa Bonita was really wonderful and I’d highly recommend it. We put a full review at the hotel site.
Day 2: We rented a car from Toyota Travel. I set everything up before we arrived. I called Costa Rica from the States and had a great experience with their travel agents. We saved money through Toyota. Our only problem was that our American Express card wouldn’t work.
We drove in to Alajuela. We walked around the square and visited the food markets. We were glad we stopped in town. We then drove on to La Fortuna. It took about 3 hours to get to La Fortuna. It was a beautiful drive. We stopped at a small soda on the side of the road in the middle of the cloud forest (I think!). The soda served up some fabulous food.
La Fortuna is quite the tacky tourist spot. We loved the drive there, but the town was not really our type of travel destination. We drove on to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, costing us about $150. We put a full review at the hotel site.
While at Arenal, we did get a view of the volcano, which was really amazing! We took some hikes around the grounds, which were nice. In retrospect, we would have probably liked going to the cloud forest nearby instead of La Fortuna.
Day 3: Our next stop on our itinerary was Santa Teresa. We had two travel options, to drive around the lake or to not drive around the lake. The gentlemen at the hotel recommended that we drive around the Lake Arenal. He was right! We HIGHLY recommend the drive around this lake. It was gorgeous. We stopped at Café Macadamia and had a fabulous meal. While not really Tico fare and a bit touristy, it was absolutely delicious. The café has a great view of the lake. Driving from Café Macadamia to Santa Teresa got a little confusing in small town…can’t remember the name. Just stop and ask. And for some reason we had a hard time finding the dock in Puntarenas. It is on the north side of the peninsula. Don’t get suckered in to paying for “parking” while waiting for the ferry to get to Paquera. We arrived in Santa Teresa pretty late.
Day 4-8: We spent the bulk of our time in Santa Teresa. We highly recommend staying in this town. I read quite a bit on whether or not to stay in Santa Teresa over Mal Pais…Santa Teresa was more our style. It is off the beaten path, even though a little strip mall was recently built. We felt very safe walking around Santa Teresa day or night. But Mal Pais is a bit more remote…not really navigatable on foot. Santa Teresa has a main street with small restaurants, grocery stores and other services. The grocery has pretty much everything you need. Mal Pais has very few restaurants/services. However, if we were serious surfers or really wanted to be away from it all, we probably would have liked Mal Pais better.
Santa Teresa accommodations: We stayed at Casa Malpa (http://www.casamalpa.com/), which was an AMAZING house. Steve is the guy who manages it and he is easy to work with. We really had no idea what to expect when we arrived and were really surprised by the design and appeal of the house. Plus the house came with a very friendly vacation dog that spent the week with us!
Santa Teresa eateries: One of our favorite places to eat dinner was Las Piedras. As advertised, the chicken is great. We also ate at Soda La Amistad. Our final dinner was at La Tropica Latina. The chef prepared a several course meal and two musicians played flamenco music. The manager and staff at La Tropica Latina were super great.
Excursion: We drove to Cabo Blanco on the south road. You could probably do the road with two-wheel drive in the dry season to Cabo Blanco, but you could not have taken the most direct route on the southern road like we did. Cabo Blanco was a great day excursion. Try to get there early enough to hike all the way to beach. Overall the hiking was great…a lot of wildlife. We stopped for a meal at a soda at the cross roads in Cabuya. It was delicious.
Buying Fish: We had a great time buying fish directly from the fisherman that are at the end of the main road in southern Mal Pais. We went at sundown, but you can also go early in the day. The trick is catching the fishermen when they are coming in. If you happen to not be there at the right time, they put fresh catches in a cooler and you can buy from there. We purchased a fresh grouper for about $24, which resulted in about 8 nice size fillets.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you drive, do not leave anything of value in your car. Do not leave anything in your hotel room, house, etc that is visible. We unfortunately left items in the house we were renting that were visible through the window. Three young men broke in through window and took an entire suitcase before we caught them. They also managed to get some miscellaneous items from another room. Unfortuantley we were not able to get our things from them and the police were not working at the time. We also saw someone’s car that had been broken in to. Neither of these incidents made us afraid or wary of being in Santa Teresa but reminded us of basic traveling know-how.
Notes: The road got really hot and dusty during the day. There are beach parties but the town night life quiets down early. None of us spoke fluent Spanish, so we got a phrase book and it all worked out perfectly. The bakery near the center of town has good eats, internet connection and really friendly and helpful staff. One person in our party unfortunately found a scorpion in her bath towel…but only after it had stung her. Shaking out towels and doing a quick shake of bed clothes is a good idea! As far as cheap beach beer goes, we decided that we definitely liked Pilzen over Imperial.
Day 9: Drove from Santa Teresa to San Jose. We stayed at the Hotel Presidente. A room for four was $125. We put a full review at the hotel site. It was a great place to explore the city, which we did and quite enjoyed.
Day 10: Return to San Jose airport.