Costa Rica Travel: Experience the Coastal Beauty to Serene Rainforests

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I recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica. The planning for the trip started off in much the same way that other trips I’m taken with a lot of reading and cross-checking with reviews. The more I read though the more it became apparent that Costa Rica required that a lot of logistics would need to be overcome — road, boat, and plane transfers along with hotel and activity reservations. So I gave up the DIY approach and reached out to a professional travel agency called Costa Rica Expeditions (CRE). They were well reviewed both in print and online; later I learned from locals in Costa Rica that CRE is well regarded there too.

My interaction with CRE began on their web site. There I filled out a form indicating my interests along with my sensitivity to pricing. You can travel on a budget or very luxuriously — I went somewhere in the middle. The form was long, but that was good since its comprehensiveness makes it easier for CRE to assemble a customized itinerary for you. The hardest part was providing the right guidance and not just indicating I was interested in everything.

Once you submit the form, I was placed on an e-mail responder list. Over the next day or two I received some e-mails with information about travelling to Costa Rica. Not long afterwards I received m customized itinerary. Was it perfect the first time? Nope. But it did provide a great framework to work off of and CRE expects some changes. They’re even willing to start from scratch if they got things completely wrong.

Things I ended up changing:

  • Adding an extra day in La Paloma partly to allow for sufficient surface time before flying.
  • Eliminating one of the drives between destinations — I felt it better to pay to fly and get back some time in exchange. This change resulted in the order in which I went to each destination changed which CRE had no problem handling.

My final itinerary ended up being:

  • Flying into to San Jose, Costa Rica on a Wednesday (flying in the middle of the week cut the number of American Airlines points need in half).
  • Overnight stay at the Tryp Sabana Hotel in San Jose.
  • Early morning flight to Drake Bay where I would stay for 4 nights at La Paloma Lodge.
  • A flight back to San Jose from which I was driven to Monteverde where I stayed 2 nights at Monteverde Lodge.
  • A drive to Arenal where I stayed 2 nights at the Arenal Manoa Resort.
  • A charter flight to Tortuguero where I stayed 3 nights at Tortuga Lodge.
  • A flight back to San Jose where I stayed overnight at Tryp Sabana.
  • An early morning flight to JFK.

Mixed into the above were many guided walks (day and night), scuba diving, canyoning, kayaking, and boat tours. You’ll notice no mention of beaches. In fact I skipped the beach resort area entirely as I’m not much of a fan of beach vacations. I understand that the northwest part of Costa Rica does cater to the beach crowd and does well at it.

What I Would Do Differently

It’s hard to know ahead of time if you’re making the right travel decisions or not. And while CRE did an excellent job and my Costa Rica vacation was awesome, there are still a few things I’d do differently.

  1. I wish I had packed my camera gear. In an effort to come in under the weight restrictions of my flights, I opted to leave my digital SLR behind. There was no way I could pack it and still be under 25 lbs. And while it’s possible to pay for extra weight, apparently such extra baggage can be put on standby which, given my constant moving around the country, didn’t seem like a good idea. However, none of the planes I was one was full so I wouldn’t have had any problems.
  2. I took enough clothes for 3 days, but 4 days worth would’ve been better. Because of my moving from location to location, I wear the last set of clean clothes on a travel day which meant that neither the hotel I left nor the one I arrived at could do my laundry in time for the following day.
  3. I would swap out Arenal Manoa for another place. This hotel had good service and there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the rooms, but the hotel seemed to cater to a different, more resort-minded audience. Any place where 50-person buses roll into is not what I’m looking for.
  4. I’m not sure this is possible, but I would look into whether the flight from Tortuga Lodge back to San Jose could be later in the day. I had a morning flight that put me in San Jose around 10:00. For eco-tourists like me, San Jose is as uninteresting a destination as you can get meaning a wasted precious vacation day. Not to mention the hotel I was at wasn’t so good (see below).
  5. I wouldn’t stay at the Tryp San Jose. The primary purpose of this hotel was to sleep and in that regard it fails miserable. The first night I couldn’t sleep because of the noise from traffic. The second night, after being assured of a quieter room, I got stuck with one that had a window that wouldn’t seal — think of the noise from a slightly rolled down window as you drive on a highway. If you read the reviews on Trip Advisor you’ll see several complaints related to noise so I guess others have had similar experiences.

The Rain Doesn’t Care What Season It Is

The travel books would have you believe that Costa Rica has a wet season and a dry season. In reality, there is a wet season and a less wet season — it rains all the time! On the west coast in March this means short rain showers mostly at night, but pretty good weather during the day. In Monteverde this means rain here and there throughout the day, with good weather in between. The exception is the cloud forest where all day rain is the norm. For Arenal, there will likely be rain starting in the early evening, but showers during the day are quite possible. And on the east coast in Tortuguero expect rain anytime and all of the time!

Throughout my trip I asked locals about the weather and they all replied in a similar fashion. Costa Rica doesn’t have a dry season, it just has a less rainy season. Most of those I asked were amused by the question and undoubtedly have had the discussion before.

Wifi? Yeah, maybe, sort of.

So every hotel I had reserved indicated they provided wifi access. La Paloma provided it in the main building, but the connection was unstable making using a VPN next to impossible. Monteverde Lodge advertised wifi access in every room, but it didn’t work and the front desk didn’t know how to fix it. Wifi access in the common area did work however. Arenal Monoa’s wifi was good so no complaints there. Tortuga Lodge’s didn’t work at all anywhere and like at Monteverde, the staff didn’t know what to do. It was possible to take the network cable from the back of one of the shared computers and plug it into my laptop, but that was rather inconvenient. And lastly, Tryp San Jose provided solid wifi access which is the only reason I retained my sanity during the day I was stuck in San Jose on my way back to New York.

A Short Word on Safety

I’ve lived in big cities all of my life; mostly in Toronto and New York. And I find myself unable to judge what areas in countries like Costa Rica are safe and unsafe. Asking people and reading on the web don’t do much to impart much confidence as measures of safety are quite subjective not to mention that safety is often a function of familiarity.

Throughout my visit to Costa Rica I felt safe. Much of this was because I was either with a guide, in small towns with people milling about, or within the confines of a lodge. And yet I sometimes felt an undercurrent that perhaps my feels were an illusion. Windows had bars on them, fences were often topped with barbed wires, and hotel security sometimes (e.g. at Arenal) carried a gun. Was all of this to simply discourage crime or was it there to deal with existing crime? I don’t know, but I figured I’d mention it for those looking to visit Costa Rica.