Around And About Costa Rica In Style - My Family Travels

We want to share our observations on our December 2003-January 2004 holiday in Costa Rica.  Overall the trip was fantastic.  We loved the country, the people were really friendly and it was a perfect destination for the kids (Abigail, 6; Nathaniel, 8; Sara Joe, 14; Natania, 11 and Sam, 8), with lots to do and see. 

The service from Swiss Travel, the tour company arranged by our travel agent, was excellent.  The vans were comfortable and the guides, who were always on time, were knowledgeable and nice, and they even made the four-hour transfers fun for the kids.  As you will see, our trip was full of fun, nature, and education.

Monteverde, The Cloud Forest

We stayed at the Fonda Vela which was perfectly pleasant.  It’s pretty rustic in that area, but the rooms were spacious and pleasant and the food in their restaurant was quite good.  Getting around town is a bit of a challenge without a car and it would be nice if the hotel offered taxi service into town, but you can always call for one.  [FTF note: the Fonda Vela now offers private transportation for your group in an air-conditioned mini-bus to and from most points in Costa Rica.] 

We got a bit bored eating at the Fonda Vela restaurant for every meal, so we opted out one night and ate at Pizzeria Johnny, which was very good and a pretty place.  A favorite hangout in Monteverde is the Bakery, which is a cute spot with a garden in back, though the European style pastry is mediocre at best.  However, the Wolansky’s were perfectly happy to be without a car. Jane said that “it would have been a nightmare because none of the roads are paved and they are extremely rough.  There are no road signs or street names, and we envision beging hopelessly lost on a rural ditch in the middle of nowhere!  We found taxis to be easily available, and, frankly, as there weren’t too many places to go in the area, I feel that two full days are sufficient time to spend here.”

We loved the walk through the Cloud Forest.  Our excellent nature guide was Francisco, an independent operator hired by Swiss Travel.  I only wish we had had enough time to make it a full-day hike.  I think we only covered a two-mile stretch of trail and I know there is a much larger loop that I would have liked to have taken.  Our hike was a great introduction, but it would have been fun to get away from all of the other groups of tourists for a few more hours of hiking.  The forest is so spectacular, that three hours just seemed like a tease. 

Nathaniel and my husband John did the Sky Trek (riding through the forest canopy on a series of cables), while Abby and I did the less adventurous Sky Walk (walking through the canopy on a series of bridges.)  The Sky Walk was very pleasant, similar to the morning walk on the forest floor, but the Sky Trek was more like an E-ticket ride at Disneyland.  The longest cable was 2000′ long and 1300′ feet above the ground!  John loved it and Nathaniel was ecstatic.  Apparently these cable rides exist in numerous parts of the country, but the one at Monteverde is reputed to be the best.

In Monteverde we also visited a Hummingbird and Butterfly farm, both of which were fun.  We also had the driver stop on the way out of town at the Serpentario, which I would have liked to have had more time to explore.  As opposed to Jane, I really wish we’d had another day in Monteverde.  There is an amphibian exhibit at The Frog Pond that we didn’t have time to visit, and several other attractions that might have been interesting.

Note: Travelers to this area should bring lightweight long pants, light raingear; hiking boots are optional.  As with everywhere in Costa Rica, binoculars (preferably one pair per person) are a must.

Arenal, The Volcano

We hated our hotel, the Tabacon Resort and Spa.  From what we could tell, the facilities certainly seem to be the most luxurious of any in the area, but the feel of the place is industrial tourism at its worst.  It’s too crowded and too impersonal.  Most of the staff we encountered, from our initial orientation at reception, to all of the waiters, were unfriendly.  Other than the breakfast buffet (where the woman making tortillas practically threw the delicious hot tortilla I had ordered at me), the food was horrible.  The first night when we checked in, I was told I couldn’t have a reservation in their restaurant for 45 minutes, even though the kids were starving and exhausted.  When we finally arrived at the restaurant, it was almost empty and the nasty maitre d’ couldn’t find our reservation.  I had to argue with him for five minutes before he would seat us!  Then our waiter was unpleasant, the service was painfully slow, and the food almost inedible.  The night that we ate at the buffet down the hill at the spa was no better. 

The Wolansky’s stayed at the Montana de Fuego Resort and Spa, which was only a few minutes from the Tabacon Resort.  I think it was very rustic, but at least the people were friendly there. Jane adds that “calling it a ‘Resort and Spa’ is stretching it, and although I agree with Victoria’s assessment of the horrors of the Tabacon Resort, I still lean in favor of creature comforts and would have preferred to stay there if we had been able to get off the wait list.  The Montana de Fuego consists of little ‘contemporary’ (i.e. 1960’s) cabins on a hill with a direct view of the volcano (which is always shrouded in clouds) and they smell a little moldy.”

The spa itself is a great facility, but it’s crowded and poorly run.  It took forever to get towels and locker room keys, and to return them.  The kids liked the swim up bar and the water slide, but I could have done without most of that experience.  We did discover on the morning we left, that across the street, the same water is accessible through a public access park.  Mostly people from the town go there.  It doesn’t have the man-made pools or towel service, but it’s not crowded and it’s very pretty.  It’s much cheaper and there are BBQ’s for cooking your own food.  Next time I would head there.  I also heard from one of the guides that there are other places with access to the hot water that are much more pleasant than Tabacon, but I don’t know their names.

The morning we left, we got in another canopy ride at the hotel.  This was a baby one compared with the one at Monteverde, but it was a good introduction for Abby and me.  The guides seemed experienced, but in keeping with the general level of service at Tabacon, not very friendly.

We did enjoy our hike along the base of the Arenal Volcano.  We had our favorite guide, Jay Caraballo.  He was incredible at spotting birds and other wildlife, and because we were interested, went out of his way to stop the car for any species we hadn’t seen yet.  Again, my only complaint is that I would have liked the hike to be longer.  Even the kids wanted to go further.

Our best experience in the Arenal area, was our full-day excursion to Cano Negro which was also one of the highlights of the whole trip.  With Jay, our excellent guide, we spent an enthralling 2 ½ hours in the wetlands identifying birds and animals.  The kids loved it.  They have become quite good naturalists, proficient with binoculars and eager to look for wildlife.  Lunch was provided by Swiss Travel at a facility they maintain.  Very tasty arroz con pollo and gallo pinto with fried chicken were prepared by two women who work for them.

We ate at a couple of restaurants in the town of La Fortuna, which is only a ten minute ride from Tabacon Resort and Spa (Tabacon’s location is good, by the way, close to town and the volcano.)  We had a delicious steak dinner at the Mirador Arenal Steak House near the hotel, and good local cuisine at Rancho La Cascada (the best tilapia and tres leches of the entire trip).  We also heard that Lava Rocks is good, but never got a chance to eat there.

Note: Hiking boots are preferable on the hardened lava around the volcano.

Tamarindo and the Turtle Hatchery

Our transfer here was led by Andreas and Victor, our guide and driver.  These guys, sent by Swiss Travel, were also very friendly and knowledgeable.  We stopped for a nice lunch at Lahas, a bit touristy but good.

The Cala Luna is a really nice facility.  Our villa was enormous and had its own pool.  The food was delicious, though food service was almost hopeless.  The waiters were nice but incompetent – they need a new food service manager desperately.  Room service was surprisingly quick, but invariably the waiter would have to return several times to bring the things he’d forgotten.

Our favorite experience here was seeing the leatherback turtles at night on Playa Grande.  Because of the 15 person limit on the beach imposed by the park service, we were not allowed access to a giant turtle until midnight (they only come up on shore at night) and were not back in our hotel until 1:30am.  And, we were not the last group of tourists!

Unfortunately the kids were asleep by then, but the experience was awesome.  We were fortunate to know someone at the hatchery and the kids did get to release 100 hatchlings on the beach and watch them make their way to the water earlier in the evening.  Note that high season for turtle nesting and hatching is in December.  We had dinner at the Las Tortugas Hotel, which is on the beach – nothing special, but a nice atmosphere.  I’m sure the accommodations are rustic, but I liked the place for its location.  We also heard about a place called Kiki’s, which is just up the road, where a lot of the biologists eat, but we never made it there.

Playa Grande was our favorite beach.  It was uncrowded and the water was wonderful, though I hear at high tide it can be quite dangerous.  Conchal Beach is in a beautiful setting, but very crowded and spoiled somewhat by the cars that could drive along side it. We did have an excellent dinner in nearby Brasalito, outdoors at El Cameron Dorado – great service, fresh food and strolling musicians.  Both beaches are about a half hour drive from the Cala Luna

In Tamarindo we had a healthy, decent lunch at Nogui Café/Café Sunshine.  But our favorite restaurant for fish was a local dive called Fiesta del Mar, which had excellent fresh fish, fruit smoothies and ceviche.

One afternoon we took a boat tour up the Tamarindo Estuary, which is a mangrove wetland area.  It was similar to the Cano Negro tour, but because the estuary is saltwater, there are different species to look for.  The trip, which was arranged through the hotel, consisted of a cab ride to a spot a few miles outside of town, at the mouth of the estuary, where a local guide with a boat was waiting.  Once we saw this, we realized that you could probably save some money by hiring the taxi yourself and having the driver negotiate with the boat owner. 

On our last night we took a sunset sail on the Blue Dolphin catamaran.  Though it was primarily a booze cruise, the captain was a nice guy from San Francisco, and the kids enjoyed swimming off of the boat far from shore, and watching a school of rays jumping out of the water.

The only thing I would do differently in Tamarindo is rent a car.  It would be much more convenient to get around to town and to the beaches.  It was good to have a van and driver to go on the turtle expedition, because of the late night return.  But everywhere else it would have been handier to have a car than to rely on taxis, though they are quite readily available.  We tried to book a car once we got there, but they were all sold out by the time we arrived.

Some General Notes

Dress is super casual, even at beach resorts.  Water shoes or sandals are preferable to flip flops or nicer sandals for getting around to the various beaches. 

We were warned that mosquitos are fierce in Costa Rica, but we didn’t actually experience that.  It was windy in the Cloud Forest while we were there, and we didn’t see any at Arenal either.  We did get bitten in Tamarindo, but not too badly.  It is probably seasonal, so I would recommend bringing a DEET product with you just in case; Paragon Sports has DEET spray for children as well as for adults.

By the way, we loved flying into Liberia.  It is a tiny airport located in the northwest area of the country, near the Pacific coast.  It took no time to get through when we arrived.  For departure, Swiss Travel insisted that we arrive at the airport three hours in advance, which we thought was ridiculous considering how small the airport is.  Apparently, it is what the airlines are recommending.  We had to fax a letter to the Swiss Travel office absolving them of responsibility in order to make it only two hours in advance, which was plenty of time.

Jane adds that her family had a slightly different itinerary from ours, because they came and left from the airport in the capital city of San Jose, located in the Central Valley.  “Frankly, I think this is the way to go (unless of course you are headed for the new Four Seasons which is only about 30-45 minutes from the Liberia airport). 

BTW, we stayed in the Costa Rica Marriott (just outside of San Jose), which is very nice Spanish hacienda style hotel next to a coffee plantation —  not at all a typical Marriott. We prefer this option because there are non-stop flights to San Jose from the New York area.  Second, not San Jose proper, but the area surrounding it (the Central Valley) is a far more beautiful area than the Liberia area in the north.  It is lush, green and mountainous, whereas the Guanacaste region in the north is dry, brown and scrubby.  Third, spending the first few days in San Jose area before heading north to Monteverde or Arenal enables you to see a completely different part of the country by taking a few easy day trips from San Jose.

“We visited the La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly/Hummingbird Sanctuary (about one hour from San Jose, if I recall correctly) which was definitely one of the most scenic and interesting days of the whole Costa Rica trip.  We also did a rather hastily planned day trip to Braulio Carillo National Park and a float trip along the Sarapaqui River (similar to Victoria’s Cano Negro).  It was hastily planned because we got to San Jose planning to spend a day seeing some museums I  had heard were really interesting and fun for the kids — the Jade Museum, the Gold Museum and the Serpentarium. However, the books (and Swiss Travel) failed to mention that all of these museums are closed for the entire period of the Christmas vacation (not just 12/25)!  We only found out about in the late morning of our first day as we were about to hire a taxi to take us to the museums.  Hence, we ran to the tour desk and the Braulio Carillo trip (okay but not great) was the only option still available to us for the day.  There were however, a lot of other options, including rafting trips, available from the San Jose area, but we have to save it for next time.” 

P.S.  Neither family visited the new Four Seasons Hotel, though we’re sure it is several notches above any facility at which we stayed.  We’re sure trips will run out of there for turtle watching, sunset cruises, etc., and heard from one of the  guides that there is a wonderful primary dry forest nearby, but he was not sure that there were paths constructed through it yet.  He did recommend day trips through Swiss Travel to Rincon de la Vieja and Palo Verde, both parks near the Nicoya Peninsula.  Of course, that is a Costa Rican “nearby,” which probably means two hours each way.

Jane Wolansky and her family live in Connecticut, and Victoria Westhead and her family live in New York.

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