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Costa Rica tour

My wife and I experienced a whole gamut of emotions while touring Costa Rica, which we found at different times enchanting, captivating, overwhelming, frustrating and irritating. The plus points were concentrated in those destinations - we travelled by hire car (ideal) and visited six locations in 15 days - where we managed to combine nature and plentiful wildlife with a lower level of human presence. Corcovado was the star; sufficiently expensive and hard to get to to deter the mainstream tourist while offering enough infrastructure to make its charms accessible. It also gave us our best accommodation (Finca Maresia), albeit with one caveat (see below). San Gerardo de Dota is number two: the valley itself was a real find. Stunningly beautiful, far less developed than Monteverde and teeming with wildlife, and a place we'd seriously consider revisiting before the big international travel firms move in. The rest were a mixed bag. Even midweek, Manuel Antonio was horrendously overcrowded, but we did get our best monkey and iguana sightings there, and the hotel (Villas Nicolas) was mostly sweet. Tortuguero mostly felt like an ultra-expensive assembly-line tour. The canals were great, but the lodge - Pachira, where we were shifted to at the last minute - far too big and the trip to the eponymous village and the hotel's 'nature trail' little more than inconsequential add-ons. It rained in Tenorio, where we both had a 60-hour attack of Montezuma's revenge, but the hotel and its hosts (Tenorio Lodge) were a delight. The tour there - to the Rio Celeste-but-actually-more-like-gris - felt over-hyped and over-priced, which reflects a broader critique of the trip. Costa Rica is clearly a prime eco destination for tourists at a time when an overpopulated world is spending increasing amounts of its disposable income on experiencing the delights of nature before they disappear. That gives the country a captive audience, meaning operators can - within reason - charge what they want and cram in the bodies. Costa Rica is attempting to resist that trend, but economic growth speaks volumes, and I think the cracks are showing. I wouldn't go so far as to say the service we received was generally bad, but it certainly had a vein of the slipshod running through it. Examples; 1/ The hire firm (National/Alamos) delivered our car 90 mins late in Gualipes. No apology, though they did compensate us with a tank of fuel 2/ The San Gerardo hotel (Savegre) told our guide, who asked reception on the first night if we'd be prepared to set off at 5:30 instead of 7:00 for better bird-viewing, that we weren't prepared to get up that early. This was pure fabrication, as no one at the hotel informed us that that option - which as keen birders we certainly would have taken - was available 3/ Our room safe at Finca Mariesa refused to acknowledge the passcode I had inputted. I told the owner, and spent an afternoon trying different combinations to try to find out where I had gone wrong. The owner did not suggest his system might be at fault, despite as I later discovered our neighbour in the next cabin having experienced the same problem. The neighbour's safe was opened with a passkey, but ours wasn't as the previous incumbent of our room had taken the key with him. I had visions of having to pay for someone to come from San Jose to sort out the mess (at our expensive) and possibly struggle to make our flight home until the owner manged to find a spare key. 4/ The boat tour off Manuel Antonio was a one-shot wonder. See some whales and its $70 per person is well spent. See none - as in our case - and the lack of alternative wildlife viewing or initiative from or interaction with the crew - make it worse value for money than the Tortuguero add-ons. Mass tourism at its most money-grubbing and patronising (though thank heaven we didn't end up on the 'gangsta rap' boat next door) 5/ Villas Nicolas provided a safe in our room - but charged us $3 a day for the key. A brilliant way to tarnish the delight of staying there without meaningful financial benefit to the hotel. Would I recommend a trip to Costa Rica? Yes, but I'd say make it soon, and be more meticulous in your research than I was. And - just to pre-empt any questions about the possible role of miscommunications in the above - I speak and write fluent Spanish.

john, from UK

Visited Costa Rica in

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What was good about our local partner based in Costa Rica?

Quick response. Interaction with client.

What could our local partner based in Costa Rica improve on?

More pro-active interaction with client

What did you think about the guides or drivers on your trip?

All good or better. Not sure if the Costa Rican travel company chose them, but if so, that's a plus point

What advice would you give to other travellers planning a trip to Costa Rica?

Pick the lower-profile destinations. There's so much to see, and that way you'll avoid at least the worst of the tourist crush that can at times become overwhelming.

What was the most memorable part of your trip?

Seeing a tapir in Corcovado and - despite the late start - a quetzal in San Gerardo.

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