Our Costa Rica Trip Review

This page documents Jess'n'Jen's trip to Costa Rica and our notes on the various tours we took, the places we stayed, the rental car, and the tour outfit we used.  The following things are reviewed here if you're interested:
Information is organized by the number of the day of the trip.  Pictures are located here.  I took a few years of spanish in high school and Jen learned some from her friends, so our spanish wasn't great but it was good enough to ask directions, order food, and be polite.  If your spanish is that good or better, the trip will be a breeze.  If you have no spanish, be sure you get good maps if you're driving or else ask directions at hotels- they all speak english.

Day 1 - San Jose

Overview

We arrived in Costa Rica in the morning at the airport outside of the city of San Jose.  Costa Rican Trails representatives met us at the airport and drove us to the Britannia hotel in San Jose.

The airport and the city of San Jose

The airport customs was fast and friendly, always a good start to a trip in another country.  Definitely faster than customs coming back into the US (but US customs agents are a surprising nice bunch too!).  The city had lots of trash in the streets, very busy, tons of people, lots of clothes shops and street vendors- definitely a fun place to explore around.  The panaderias (bakeries) are EXCELLENT and cheap.

Costa Rican Trails

Met us at the airport with signs with our name on it, which was very nice because we didn't have to go looking for them at all.  They were super friendly and one drove us from the airport to our hotel.  He was very nice, spoke much better english than our spanish, VERY clear on what we needed to do about the car rental and going on our tours and such.  They provide vouchers for everything from the hotel reservations to the car rental to the tour packages.  Everyone we gave the vouchers to expected them and there was no questions asked- very nice system they have set up.  The driver gave lots of good advice on being safe in Costa Rica and how to drive from one place to the next.  The only downside was that they were supposed to provide us more detailed maps of the areas we were going to, but he forgot the maps- so we had a little trouble finding some of our hotels.  Not too much trouble, but we definitely had to stop and ask directions.  If you don't want to have to do this, be SURE they give you maps of the local areas to find your hotels.  They said they would try to get the car rental agency to bring the maps in the morning- but that didn't happen.

One other drawback was the descriptions of the tours told how great they were and were a good sales pitch, but didn't mention anything about what to wear or if you should bring a dry change of clothes, etc.  I highly recommend reading the tour paperwork at the hotels for the tours you are going on, the tour pamplets or whatever they have usually tell you what to wear/bring/etc.  Paying attention to this can really help make a tour a lot more comfortable which makes it a lot more fun.

Overall though, we felt that the value add from Costa Rican Trails was well worth it.  We priced out the things we did after the trip and it cost maybe an extra 50 bucks each to do it through Costa Rican Trails, but for the added convenience of the vouchers they give you and having them drive you to your hotel from the airport and arrange everything- it's a real deal.  Just to be clear, I have no affiliation with them and am receiving no ad revenue or anything for this site.

Britannia Hotel

Nice, great rooms, english speaking people, informative, pretty basic breakfast but it was free, somewhat pricey dinner (not worth it to us), the area of town looked kind of sketchy but we didn't really see any place better.  Hugh room, high ceiling, lots of extra space.  Overall, definitely a good place.  

Day 2 - San Jose to Arenal drive

Overview

Car rental agency delivered rental car to our hotel.  We drove to Arenal Volcano area.

SIXT Car Rental

Informative and friendly agent.  She offered insurance and GPS, but was not pushy about it at all.  Spoke good english, spanish, and german.  There was a number of tiny knicks and chips in the paint from rocks on the road and such, and I had her highlight the worst of them on the rental agreement but she said most of them were too small to matter.  However, when returning the car there was some question about whether various chips were already there or not and if we needed to pay for them.  Ultimately the manager was very friendly and said it was fine, but still the fact there was a question was a little annoying.  Have the agent that gives you the car mark EVERY little ding and chip if the car has any, don't be shy.  If the page is ALL marked up, there will be no question when you return it.  The car was in good shape though, ran great, and had 4 wheel drive- a necessity in a few spots, don't get a 2 wheel drive if you plan on going to Monteverde.

Driving in Costa Rica

People made a big deal about this, like it was some crazy thing.  A lot of the other tourists we talked to were kind of shocked that we were driving ourselves but it really wasn't bad.  The weird thing is, Costa Ricans don't name streets.  They just don't.  In San Jose, sometimes there would be street names marked on the sides of buildings but it was completely random whether or not there was a marker on any given corner - and the names were basically "avenida 1-8 and calle 1-8" (or whatever the numbers were).  Outside the city there were no street names, but some highways were numbered.  Basically the best way to navigate from San Jose to Arenal is by signs for the volcanos!  At every major intersection, there would be signs of which direction the next volcano was and which directions the next small town and next major towns were.  As long as you knew the next volcano you were heading toward or the next town along the way you wanted to go- no problem.  The lack of street names wasn't that much of an issue.  The streets in this section are very well paved and pretty safe.

The drive took about 4 hours and we stopped frequently for pictures and such.  It was very hilly and VERY beautiful.  The ability to stop a bunch at random spots on the way is definitely a big plus of driving on your own..  There were lots of waterfalls and scenic overlooks to stop at.  The local restaurants have this kind of ketchup that is unique but good- sweet and more "salsa-y" :-)

Arenal Volcano area

Nice, clean, friendly town called "La Fortuna", the volcano is called Arenal so people call it the Arenal area.  Lots of english speaking people, MANY restaurants to choose from (another benefit of having a car, you don't have to eat at the hotels).  There's a local dish called "casado", try it, it's delicious.  There's some kind of soft white local cheese that's kind of squeeky when you eat it.  It's fantastic, don't skip it- I asked the waiter, it's cow cheese made locally in the area.  They had it in a lot of the restaurants here.

Arenal Paraiso Hotel

All the nice hotels in Arenal are gated, this is one of the really nice ones.  Has its own hot springs- HIGHLY recommended.  EXCELLENT free buffet breakfast.  The whole place was very clean, showers in the room were huge, great views of the volcano, gated parking, nice porch with chairs to sit in and look at the volcano.  Downsides: the room was a cabin and not insulated in the least so it was some trouble getting the room cool with the AC unit on full and the bed was not particularly comfy.  Overall though, great hotel especially since it had the hot springs- those were awesome.

Day 3- Horseback Riding Tour to La Fortuna Waterfall

Overview

This is a full day in Arenal.  We did a half day horseback riding tour to La Fortuna Waterfall, which was included in the package.  Stayed the night at the Arenal Paraiso again (more time in the hot springs, yay!)

Horseback Riding Tour to La Fortuna Waterfall

Guides were nice, profressional, well-skilled though not particularly talkative or informative.  The horses were good healthy ones, clearly well taken care of, and very tame.  We are noob riders, I've had several lessons and it was no trouble.  Others were first time riders and said it was fine.  The ride was fun for our skill level, mostly walking but a fair amount of trotting as the guides would hurry the horses occasionally so people could have some fun.  I got my horse to gallop a couple times, but it took some urging.  The ride was beautiful with great views of the volcano, over streams and through a lot of pasture.  There were a few sections of dirt road where cars went past, but they went slowly and the horses didn't spook at all.  The hide to the waterfall took about 10 minutes down, it was pretty steep- almost all stairs.  Well paved and by no means treacherous.  VERY worth the walk, the waterfall was gorgeous and the water was super clean for swimming and cold enough to be quite refreshing.

Bring PANTS and good shoes for the horseback ride, and sunscreen!  Bring a backpack with swimming clothes, there are nice bathrooms to change into your swim clothes before walking down to the waterfall- have shoes that you can walk down a steep trail and steps in as well.

Day 4- Visit to Venado Caves

Overview

This is another full day in Arenal.  Arenal is fantastic, a few days there is not too much.  We did a cave tour (spelunking) in the morning and a hanging bridges walking tour in the evening.  The cave tour was included in the package, we did the hanging bridges on our own.

Visit to Venado Caves

For a direct reservation you can contact the owner directly at expedicionesarenal@hotmail.com.  We were lucky and got a tour with no one else on it but us and the owner, his name is "Memo".  He picked us up at our hotel and drove for an hour to Venado where the caves are.  He was super friendly, the van was very clean and had a nice flatscreen video monitor where he played a video for us of the cave tour so we'd know what to expect.  He spoke good english and during the tour explained the science of cave formation and seashell deposits (the place was underwater eons ago).  He was patient and knowledgable and didn't hurry us at all.  One part near the beginning callled the "birthing canal" is very tight but totally optional and he's very cool to people who don't want to do it (we won't name any names Jen... oops!).  It requires good upper body strength after going through the canal in order to climb out.

There are some portions of the tour which involve rock climbing inside the cave and require you to be reasonably strong and have some bravery :-)  Memo of course zipped right up those parts, so anyone with ANY rock climbing experience will have little trouble.  I have very little rock climbing experience (done indoor a few times) so I'm a total noob and I was ok.

Advice: they have a shower for afterwards, so bring a change of clothes.  Wear shorts and a t-shirt for guys or running bra for girls (it's pretty warm in the cave, you will sweat).  Don't be macho and go shirtless, you'll probably get scraped up because you have to army crawl in some sections, rock climb, etc.  Of course Memo went with no shirt and had no marks, so if you're hardcore and well skilled, I suppose you could go shirtless if you wanted.  Jen wore a running bra and was fine.  You will get VERY wet and muddy.  Wear NOTHING on your back or around your waist.  This means no backpacks, no fanny packs, no cameras- because you will be crawling and sliding around and things attached to you WILL be in your way.  Carry nothing in your hands, you will need full use of them.  The van is safe and secure to leave your change of clothes, cameras, etc.  They have a camera-for-hire to come on the tour with you and take pictures.  It's only 20 bucks I think (dirt cheap really) but we didn't bother with it.

This was an awesome tour, I highly recommend it, unless you're claustraphobic of course :-) or if you're terrified of bats- there were plenty of bats there.  There were also a lot of crickets that looked like spiders because their antennae are so long.  There was one huge spider (a few inches across) that Memo picked up and showed us.  I'm pretty chicken about spiders, but it was ok :-)

Hanging Bridges Walk

In the afternoon we talked to the hotel tour people about something to do and they mentioned a Hanging Bridges walk.  We drove over there, it was $23 each.  There were long suspension bridges across canyons with trails through the jungle in between.   The bridges are high up, but sturdy and well constructed.  It was a fun nature walk that takes about 1.5-2.5 hours depending how fast you walk.  It was more to go with guides, which we didn't do, but you would probably see a lot more animals with a guide to point them out.  We saw a lot of birds, squirrels, lizards, iguanas, a snake that a guide pointed out when we were walking past, but near the end we got lucky and spotted a huge woodpecker (probably 1.5 feet tall) and then a toucan.  We also heard howler monkeys.

Day 5- Canyoneering and Arenal to Monteverde Drive

Overview

This day we were scheduled to drive from Arenal area to Monteverde, but it was only supposed to take 3.5 hours or so, so we decided to do the canyoneering tour (rappelling down waterfalls) in the morning because another guest in the hotel mentioned at breakfast the day before that it was the tour of a lifetime.  So we did that in the morning and then drove to Monteverde afterwards where we stayed in the Trapp Family Lodge.

Canyoneering (aka rappelling down waterfalls)

They picked us up from the hotel in the morning and drove us to the staging area.  Here we switched to a 4x4 truck (cattle style in the back) for the rest of the drive up a dirt road to the start.  It was VERY cool, the first drop was 65 meters (around 200 feet) high.  Pretty scary but tons of fun.  The guides were experts, spoke great english, and fun loving but very safe.  They triple checked all our gear and were careful with themselves as well which is reassuring- they were always clipped in on top of the cliffs, no horsing around.  Overall, very thrilling, not too difficult hikes, and they provided a tasty lunch at the end.  Highly recommend that you wear water shoes, actually water shoes are a great recommendation for Costa Rica in general- we bought some at REI and used them a ton.  On the way back, the guides stopped the truck and picked up a fruit at the side of the road called "guanabana".  The flesh kind of tore like chicken, and was super tasty but Jen thought it was too slimy though I ate a lot of it.  We had guanabana drinks later after trying it here, fantastic!

The Drive to Monteverde

Very scenic around the lake.  It was a great drive until the tar ended and became a SUPER bumpy dirt road (I grew up on a dirt road, so I can call this one bumpy with some authority :-).  At the pace we went it was about 1.5 hours of bumpy road and some signs were missing it appeared so we made a wrong turn once for about 100 meters until we found a kid selling maps.  We bought a map even though he may have been the one who took down the sign, and it was a good thing because it showed us where our hotel was in Monteverde- which turned out to be very helpful because otherwise it would have been hard to find.  DO NOT TRY THIS DRIVE AT NIGHT, you will miss signs and get lost.

Trapp Family Lodge

The room was very spacious and attractive, but simple.  There was no AC (though it was cool there at altitude I guess), fridge or TV.  It was also kind of far on a really bumpy dirt road from the nearby town and there was not much to do around the hotel.  The wood floors were beautiful, but kind of loud and slippery.  Overall, a very pretty place, but not particularly entertaining- though we spent a little time at the hotel bar and the staff was super friendly and fun and we had the BEST drinks.  They mixed fresh fruit into the daquiris, etc- really fantastic fresh drinks.

Day 6- Sky Trek / Sky Tram and Night Hike

Overview

This was a full day in Monteverdge.  The tour had the Sky Trek / Sky Tram scheduled which is a zipline tour.  In the evening we went on a guided nature hike in the jungle.  Stayed another night at Trapp Family Lodge.

Sky Trek / Sky Tram

They picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the site.  This was a great tour, definitely a must.  It was very exhilirating and seemed quite safe.  The guides didn't speak the best english, but it was pretty good- certainly no trouble.  They had obviously done it so many times that they seemed a little haphazard with their own safety, however they were extremely thorough double-checking our gear for safety so we never felt worried about the equipment.

After it was over, it was kind of a long wait for the return bus- close to an hour I think.  But they had a really nice butterfly / hummingbird garden and we saw the biggest beetle we've ever seen there!

Night Hike

We scheduled a night walk from the hotel.  The hike was at hidden valley and cost $20 each.  VERY informative tour guide who spoke great english.  He pointed out guarimundi, porcupine, racoon, sloth, some small mammal we forgot the name of, many tarantulas and crickets, a wide variety of lightning bugs (one looked like it had headlights on, super cool!), frogs, etc.  He searched for some snakes, but didn't have any luck.  He was really a great guide, knew a ton and super friendly, it was great.

Day 7- Monteverde to Manuel Antonio drive

Overview

Long drive (tour says about 5 hours, I think that was true) to Manuel Antonio (next to Quepos).  Stayed overnight in Hotel Parador.

The Drive

Another 1.5 more hours of bumpy road (seriously, by this time we were pretty darn sick of bumpy dirt roads).  The dirt road lasts past Guacimale until Los Angeles (this is the really nice country version of LA- no smog, no freeways, no hordes of people).  Follow signs to Quepos or Jaco.  Construction + trucks made the roadways kind of slow, but after getting off the bumpy dirt roads, we didn't care a bit.  Some of the bridges where the construction was taking place were kinda scary and rickety looking- we drove through the creek to avoid one bridge :-)  Again, the fact that Costa Rican Trails didn't provide us with a map kinda sucked here because the hotel was REALLY hard to find.  I asked directions at one point and the guy said it was a kilometer back the way we came.  I drove two kilometers back and asked another guy, said it was one kilometer back the way I came.  So they were pretty accurate and going that way I spotted the sign underneath signs for a couple other places.  Two kilometer bumpy dirt road to it of course off the nice paved road we were on.

Parador Hotel

Bumpy road to get there, but WOW.  Gorgeous.  Huge.  The place was a palace.  Great views of the ocean from the hillside it was on, Jen liked the shampoo and conditioner here, AC, fridge, balcony, TV.  There were monkeys on the grounds, pretty pools with vanishing edges (one of the pools was adults only), lots of friendly staff, nice spa (like massages, etc, kind of spa), hot tubs.  Very good buffet breakfast.  Really a fantastic hotel, oh yeah, and free internet with several computers for free use.  The only thing that sucked was the road to it (hehe we were definitely fed up with the bumpy roads around Monteverde by this point so this little 2km stretch was annoying after all that).

Day 8- Manuel Antonio National Park

Overview

 The schedule for today was to take a nature walk through Manuel Antonio National Park and stay another night in the Hotel Parador.

Manuel Antonio National Park Nature Walk

This was as awesome as a walk can be!  We had a GREAT guide "Andre"- I suggest you ask specifically for him.  He spotted things you would NEVER see on your own.  He had a spotter telescope for viewing small animals up in trees and off the path- it was good for taking pictures too as he would hold your camera up to it and take pictures for you.  We saw howler monkeys, at least a dozen sloths, menpho, iguanas, cool bugs, bats, the "Jesus Christ" lizard (you know the one that can run on water), and the famous red eyed frog in all the tourist guidebooks.
The guide also pointed us to which beach at the park was safe and nice.  It's really a great park.  There are white sand beaches, shaded areas, and safe water.  No snorkeling close by,

The town of Manuel Antonio

Downtown Manuel Antonio is nice with lots of street vendors.  Definitely good eats between here and the Hotel Parador.  Some places are nice quiet little restaurants, others are very cool with some sort of theme: one is one of the planes from the Iran-Contra scandal, another has a trolley in the middle, definitely fun places.  Pretty cheap and good food.

Day 9- Free day in Manuel Antonio

This was a free day in Manuel Antonio or Quepos to do whatever you want to do and stay another night in the Hotel Parador.
We booked a catamaran tour through the hotel (sorry, didn't get a url).  It was great, there were only 10 people on a boat that normally has around 40+ people on it.  Good food and all you can drink was included.  We went out dolphin watching for a while and the dolphins played around jumping in front of the boat- very cool!  Then we went snorkeling at a rock out in the ocean.  There were a lot of colorful fish, but it had rained the day before so the water was pretty cloudy and visibility was short.

We spent more time in the pools at the hotel, had drinks and food at the swimup bar which was pretty fun.

Day 10- Quepos/Manuel Antonio to San Jose Airport Drive

This was our last day :-(  We drove from Quepos (which if it's not clear is right next to Manuel Antonio so it's hard to tell which place you're in sometimes) to the San Jose airport.  It's about a 4 hour drive on pretty good roads and highways.  It's a nice scenic drive.

Final Thoughts

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