Having been to Costa Rica twice before with organised trips (Mercury and Cox & Kings), I had a good idea where I wanted to visit and the hotels I wanted to stay in. Having booked the flights myself, all I really needed was a travel company to book the hotels and arrange transfers. I found Travel Local online and liked their approach. They basically act a middle man; they are UK based with Abta protection so your booking is safe, from then on you deal directly with one of their approved travel partners via the messaging app on their web site; in this case their local partner, based in San Jose. The online interface is very easy to use with each stage of the trip set out on tabs which are updated as things progress. To start things off, you answer a few questions about where you want to go, activities you want to do and the hotel grades you prefer, and they put a costed itinerary together. I also recall that they offered a few off the shelf trips, so if you didn't want to start from scratch, you could choose the trip that appealed most, then customise it to suit. The messaging app worked really well. In most cases I received a response the same working day and even allowing for a 6 hour time difference, it always felt like a 'live chat' experience. I also dealt with the same person throughout the process which was reassuring, so a big thank you to Mariana in country who also came to meet us at our hotel on the second night to welcome us to Costa Rica and go through the trip itinerary, which was unexpected and a nice touch. All in all, the Travel local approach is very neat and worked very well. As an footnote, I compared some of the hotel prices in my itinerary to what it would have cost me had I booked direct through trip advisor and the local partner were cheaper!
It was good to work with a local operator. Local knowledge enhances the trip and I like think that I'm supporting local jobs, which in turn protects the habitats and species I go there to see. Dealing with the same person throughout the booking process was reassuring. A big thank you to Mariana who came to our hotel on the second night to welcome us to Costa Rica and go through the trip itinerary - 10/10 for effort!
For some reason, the driver that picked us up from our hotel in San Jose sat in the car park for 45 minutes without the penny dropping that the (only) two people sat in the collection area outside the hotel might just be his customers. I called the helpline and we got things sorted out eventually, once they found someone who could speak better English. For my part I've decided to improve my Spanish... This wasn't the local tour operators fault, but as their reviews could suffer by association, its worth them asking the transport companies they use to ensure that all drivers make their presence known at reception. This aside, all other transfers went well, and all of the drivers were happy to stop for a photo opportunity. As someone with a passion for wildlife photography, I always use local guides as they know their local patch and you are guaranteed to see so much more wildlife. Guiding is a sought after and well paid job and as on previous trips, all of the guides on this trip work hard. Tell them what you want to see and they'll do their best to find it for you. Be aware though, your chances of seeing any of the six native cat species in the wild are very low, so be realistic!
I would have no hesitation in booking through TravelLocal again. Costa Rica is a wonderful country with very friendly people and a well developed tourist industry. But be warned, if you enjoy wildlife, one visit will get you hooked and you'll want to return year after year!
Hmm where to start? The beautiful gardens at the Hotel Bougainvillea in San Jose, being woken by coyote calls in the San Gerardo de Dota mountains, the friendly welcome and hard-core birding at Rancho Naturalista, the heard of peccary that ran across the path in front of me on the Osa peninsula, the sheer diversity of wildlife, especially in the forests at night, and the night skies with no light pollution. Costa Rica - Pura vida!