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Costa Rica Tour February 2020 Day 1 After a surprisingly easy flight 11-hour flight on BA from Gatwick we arrive at San Jose at 5pm local time 11pm body clock. A driver is waiting for us and takes us through the heavy traffic to Hotel Aranjuez near the town centre. The hotel is a quirky collection of rooms in adjoining buildings in a block some connected by tin sheet covered walkways. The rooms are clean and comfortable but basic. The receptionist announces that the restaurant is full. This works out well as we find a tapas bar 100m away that provides us with the snack we need, not a full meal. Day 2 We sleep OK and get up the next morning for a 620 am departure. The hotel can only manage coffee before we go. There is plenty of space on the bus for us to spread out and we make our way through the heavy traffic although it is still early. We clear the city and settle back to see the landscape. It is all very lush capable of growing a variety of different crops. After about 2 hours we reach Guapiles which is a small provincial town. We stop for an excellent breakfast which includes, although we don’t know it, the first of many meals including rice, beans and fried plantains. There is a small butterfly garden consisting of an area about 50m square enclosed by mesh in which there are a good diversity of butterflies attracted by the fruit provided. We set off again on the bus for another hour. The road deteriorates and the scenery becomes more agricultural. We pass through a huge banana plantation and learn about the production methods. A key part is the man powered overhead rail network. The bananas are hooked onto the rails in their original hands (I think that is the right word) and dragged back to the main buildings by a man pulling on a rope. Apparently, this is the best way to avoid bruising. Eventually we reach a river. It looks like pandemonium. There are scores of buses cars and trucks some 30 feet above the river which has another score of flat bottom boats jostling for space. Somehow the confusion is more apparent than real, and we lug our bags down a bank across some sand and onto one of the boats. This is powered by two huge huge outboards. Wet set off downstream. The river level in this tributary is apparently very low, so we alternate high speed with creeping around shallow sections. The skipper has phenomenal eyesight and every now and then suddenly stops the boat to point out a variety of sights; caymen, crocodiles, iguana, monkeys, toucans, herons and other birds. After an hour we reach the main river and the little town of Tortueguero which is only accessible by boat. We purchase our $15 park entrance tickets, wander through the town enjoying pina coladas and beers from a roadside vendor before rejoining the boat for a final 20-minute trip to the Turtle Beach Hotel. Days 3 and 4 This in an idyllic setting off a tributary on what is effectively a 100 metre sand bar between the river and the Caribbean. The waves crash onto the beach providing a constant background of noise for the next few days. Apparently, the currents can be very dangerous, so we are warned just to paddle. The rooms are fairly basic but clean with plenty of hot water. There is no air conditioning, but a combination of fans, open windows protected by mosquito nets and the pacific breeze, means that the temperature in the rooms is pleasant whatever the time of day. There is a nice swimming pool with loungers and the opportunity to sit in the shallow end drinking cocktails from the bar. The food is also basic and somewhat repetitive, but ok if you like beans, rice and fajita style meat three times a day. The bar served a good variety of cocktails, beers and wine all reasonably priced. During our stay, we have a river tour, a guided walking tour, a self-guided kayak expedition to a nearby lagoon and several wanders around the property which ranges from jungle by the river to a beach that extends as far as you can see. We see more birds of a variety of descriptions, at least two species of monkeys, more caymen including rather alarmingly, one 3 feet away as we get out of the kayaks. Two sorts of snakes, poisonous red frogs and the highlight of a sloth. It was so close we could touch it. And we were also enchanted by it as it decided to set off for a morning meander amongst the treetops. Day 5 We board the boat for the trip back to the meeting place on the tributary. The return is a little quicker as we don’t have to stop at Tortuguero. We are used to the confusion and we transfer to the bus for the trip back to Guapiles. After a quick lunch we are taken to the Car Hire depot to pick up our car. It is a two-hour drive to our next hotel near the Arenal volcano. This is uneventful as the scenery gradually changes and becomes more forested. The road changes from asphalt to dirt track as it winds up to the Arenal Observatory Hotel. Days 6 and 7 This is a lovely hotel set on the slopes across a small ravine from the volcano. The volcano can be clearly seen from the viewing decks sometimes shrouded in clouds and sometimes completely clear. The bar does a good line in happy hour drinks to watch the sun go down over the lake below. The first night we eat in the hotel. This is a bit disappointing given the price, but still a welcome change from the rather repetitious diet in the jungle. There are many kilometers of trails around the hotel. We spend a morning walking these. We have spell by the pool and jacuzzi. We take a combined kayak/cycling trip. The cycling was a bit weak as it was just along the dirt track road near the lake. The kayaking was a bit of a paddle to nowhere and back but was enlivened by a strong wind whipping up little waves. The lake is man-made and huge supplying around 10% of Costa Rica’s electricity through a hydro plant. We can see the hotel in the hills above the lake and we get a great view of the volcano. In the evening, we visit a hot spring; Ecothermates. This has a succession of pools starting at 40 degrees C and then gentling cooling to about 35 degrees. We drink cocktails in the pools before transferring to a nice buffet dinner. We also go on a horse back ride. We pick up the horses from a farm near Fortuna and walk/trot/canter through the fields and then along a road to the entrance to a waterfall. 500 steps down take us to the pool under the falls where we can swim. 500 steps back up and we return to the horses and back to the farm navigating our way through a herd of dairy cows on their way to be milked and across several ravines and rivers. The horses have no bits but instead tight nose bands. We liked the trip, but we noticed some online reviews that we uncomplimentary. It wasn’t clear whether this was the same trip as there was some online talk of unscrupulous stables stealing each other’s clients. We venture out in the evening and find a charming little restaurant where we have some nice local food. They are clearly unaccustomed to tourists drinking wine and struggle to pour it, but it tastes just fine. Day 8 The rain arrives as we depart. We have the choice of a 40 mile two-and-a-half-hour drive along dirt tracks including a deep ford, or 3 hours on better roads all the way round the huge lake. We are advised to take the latter which we do. We stop for a delightful lunch at the Café Macadamia before the road deteriorates to a slow trip along dirt tracks. Eventually we reach the Ficus Lodge Hotel in Monteverde, our base for the next three nights. This is another stunning setting on the hillside above the town, although no pool to relax by. They also do a good deal in happy hour cocktails as we watch the sun set over the lake only some 20 miles away from the previous night, but a long way to travel. Dinner is at the nearby Morphos restaurant. We reject the oversold £50 bottle of wine, the recommendation to have the most expensive item on the menu and have a reasonable meal both as regards quality and price. Day 9 and 10 We awake early and drive to the Monteverde Reserve to be there at 0730 for our guided tour. About 2k short of the reserve there are some bollards and a youth advising us to use the official car park for $5 including a transfer to the reserve. We reject this and carry on up to the reserve and park at the side of the road. We have a voucher to provide entry, but t we still have to queue for 20 minutes to exchange this for our entry tickets. Whilst waiting we meet up with our guide and the other 5 members of the group we are joining. It looks like some of them are last minute additions. It is not clear whether this is some individual enterprise on the guide’s part to add to his fee for our group. Eventually we enter the reserve and find we are in a train of parties trundling slowly round the reserve trails. It becomes slightly tedious to keep queuing at each individual sight. First to see it in person and then to wait whilst the guide helps the group members take photos through his telescope. But after a couple of hours we have seen our first tarantula and number of birds. The guide also explains the distinction between the 500-year-old primary forest and the 30-year-old secondary forest which has been allowed to regrow over land previously claimed by clearing the original forest for farming and then allowed to revert back to forest. The tour ends with a look at some hummingbirds enticed to the patio of a restaurant by an abundant supply of sugared water. We leave the reserve and decide to investigate a coffee tour that we have tried to book online for the afternoon. After a 20-minute bounce along rough track we get there at about midday to be told that there is no prospect of any tour until the 2pm slot we have booked. We ask if there is any where to eat nearby and are rather surprisingly directed to a nearby pizza restaurant. This proves to be very good. It is in a small farm that has a few walks and hides where we watch bird life of more quality than in the Monteverde reserve we have visited in the morning. We eat just over half of two huge pizzas washed down with home made lemonade. We return to the coffee farm and have an interesting explanation and tour enhanced by the young guides knowledge and command of English. Predictably we buy some of the product to take home with us. Then back to the hotel for a wash and brush up before sundown cocktails and a meal in the hotel restaurant, we all enjoy our food before retiring to consume a bottle of red on our balcony and then bed. The next day starts early with three of our party of four suffering with some sort of food poisoning. Breakfast is a subdued affair and we get the morning’s activity postponed. By lunch time some of the party manage to venture into town for a very light snack at a restaurant where a metal structure has been built into the branches of a tree, to provide the dining areas. The afternoon is for reflection, before only 2 of the 4 rumble into town for a surprisingly good meal from an Israeli fusion restaurant. This odd choice of dining is explained by it being the closest to the hotel. Day 11 Everyone is much better shape the next day and we start off with the postponed Sky Walk from the day before. This a commercial organization but turns out to be much better than the apparently not-for profit tour the day before. The guide speaks good English and works at keeping the group interested. The walking pace is reasonable unlike the snail pace of the Monteverde reserve, and the groups are strung out to lessen the cattle herding syndrome. The suspension bridges are surprisingly effective in allowing us to see the forest from a different perspective. This includes looking down on a small troupe of monkeys in the trees with babes in arms. We then return to the hotel to pick up our luggage before setting off for Samara. The plan is to drive for a couple of hours before lunching. The first hour is on dirt track before reaching much better tarmac. When we stop the restaurant looks very grubby, so we decide to push on arriving at Samara at 3pm in time for refreshing beers and cocktails. An afternoon by the pool restores our energy to tackle the special grill in the hotel restaurant and then bed. Days 12 and 13 The hotel has a pleasant pool with just enough sunbeds. The rooms are not quite such high quality as the previous two hotels and the hotel is not on the beach, but overall, we are happy with the choice of a small hotel. There is somewhat of a schmozzle about the time of our kayak trip. This is changed from 10am to 12am apparently because of the tides. We are concerned about the greater heat this will mean. However, it works out fine. The paddle is not too far to an island off the beach, where the temperature is cooled by the sea breeze and we have put on enough sunscreen to avoid burning. Although a bit rough, the snorkeling is good with a variety of different fish and somewhat to our consternation also a sea snake. An afternoon by the pool is followed by a more local style meal. We persuade the waitress to do shrimps in oil and garlic, which is not on the menu. We return to the hotel and celebrate Martin’s birthday, which the time difference means has started already, with a bottle of wine on the terrace. The next day has been especially scheduled to be without activities so we have time to wander into town for lunch. We have a happy time paddling in the Pacific and then lunch on the beach before back to the hotel for a swim. In the evening we celebrate Martin’s birthday by going to an Argentinian steak house for a superb steak. Day 14 and 15 After a leisurely start we make the 4-hour drive to Santa Ana. This is somewhat over-exciting as we struggle with the combination of single lane highway, slow trucks and unpredictable manoeuvres of other drivers. We break our journey at another Café Macadamia which is adequate rather than the stunning setting of our previous experience with the chain. We reach our upmarket hotel in the early afternoon. The car is collected, and we watch the sun go down from the bar. The evening meal has to be in the hotel as the nearby restaurants are either deserted, shut or too down-market. The next day we explore the small town, laze by the pool, then taxi to the airport and flight home to conclude the holiday. Our check out is enlivened by a row about currency conversion when we use our remaining Colones to pay the dollar denominated drinks bill. It is not clear whether it was a genuine error or a bare faced attempt to cheat us, but we successfully challenge the rate reducing the cost from 30,000 to 23,600 Colones – a saving of 20% worth about £10. Overall impression Costa Rica is an easy country for a holiday. In the tourist areas enough English is spoken to enable you to get by. It is not especially cheap, but not expensive. We had to watch the currency rates. Most places took credit cards, with only a few needing Colones in cash. Some hotels priced in Dollars, but would then also give a Colones price including the addition of a 5% margin cost. Other hotels priced in Colones, giving a Dollar price with the addition of a 5% margin. Sometimes the margins drifted up to 10% for the conversions. We saw a lot of the country, but the travelling was not arduous as we spent three nights in each location. The hotel quality was right for us in that we were comfortable, without having to be in an international chain. The activity level was right in that most days were half planned, half unplanned. It would be possible to organize everything direct but the supplement we paid for the agency to organize it, seemed worthwhile and not excessive. It was the right decision to self-drive as this was not too difficult and gave us independence. With hindsight, I would make some changes; change the kayak/cycle for a walk on the volcano slopes, spend one less day in Monteverde and not do the Nature Reserve walk, try to find a boutique hotel on the beach. All-in-all the holiday lived up to our expectations. Rankings: Hotels – including breakfast, room quality, location and staff, but not value for money. Aranjuez San Jose 5 Turtle Beach Tortuguero 8 Arenal Observatory 9 Ficus Monteverde 7 Monte Laguna Samara 7 Studio Santa Ana 8 Activities: Tortuguero Boat trip 7 Tortuguero Walk 5 Tortuguero Kayak (self-guided) 7 Arenal Walk (self-guided) 7 Arenal Bike ride 4 Arenal Kayak 6 Arenal Hot Springs 8 Arenal Horse ride 8 Monteverde Nature Reserve 4 Monteverde Coffee tour 8 Monteverde Sky Walk 7 Samara Chora Island Kayak 8

john, from cheltenham

Visited Costa Rica in

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

maybe a brief summary of what to expect for each transfer/trip in terms of details. Eg lenght of transfer

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Some spoke not so good english meaning you had to struggle to listen

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

Tortuergo and Arenal where the highlights. Monteverde not so special

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Arenal and Tortuergo

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