There are very few places in the world that can offer such an incredible diversity of scenery, climate, and vacation pleasures as Costa Rica does. 26% of the country has been set aside as protected area, rich with wildlife, dense rainforests, and opportunities for eco-adventures. In an area as small as the state of West Virginia, there is everything from tropical beaches, volcanoes, scuba diving, sports fishing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking canopy tours, bird watching (over 890 species), golf, and much more! Opportunities for wildlife viewing are excellent throughout the country, but advise clients to keep in mind that they are not on an African Safari, but rather, a Costa Rican Treasure Hunt!
Climate: 2 seasons – “Green” or rainy season, from May-Oct, and the “Dry” season, from Nov – April. In the dry season, it still rains, but not every day as in the rainy season. The average temperature doesn’t vary much year-round, from lows in the 70’s to highs in the 80’s. However, areas at a higher elevation such as San Juan, Monteverde, and Arenal can be 15 – 20 degrees cooler. In the rainforest areas, the humidity can be almost 100%.
SAN JOSE – most clients will fly in and out of San Jose unless they are only spending time in the Guanacaste area, in which case they will fly into Liberia. Quite frankly, San Jose doesn’t offer much of interest to clients. It is the largest city in Costa Rica, with a population of 2 million people (out of 4 million total in the whole country). Most people use San Jose only as an overnight before continuing on elsewhere in the country, although day trip excursions are easily arranged, if so desired (to Arenal, for example).
ARENAL VOLCANO – Costa Rica’s most active volcano, located 3 hours north of San Jose. Arenal puts on an unforgettable light and smoke show nearly every day. Nighttime viewing is the most spectacular, with glowing lava and mini-explosions lighting up the sky (weather dependent, of course).
MONTEVERDE – 4 1/2 hours from San Jose, and settled by American Quakers in 1951. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve covers 26,000 acres or over 40 square miles. Guided hikes or maps for do-it-yourselfers give access to the well-marked trails, waterfalls, and observation areas. I recommend a guide, in order to better observe the amazing variety of flora and fauna. With luck, you may even spot the “Resplendent Quetzal”, truly 1 of the most beautiful birds in the world.
The above 2 areas are rich in natural attractions, such as thermo-mineral hot springs, waterfall hikes, hanging bridges walks, whitewater rafting, river float trips, zipline canopy tours, horseback riding, bird-watching, butterfly farms, ATV tours, and much more!
GUANACASTE – in the northwestern part of Costa Rica, on the Pacific, this area is where the most popular beaches are, and is much more developed than the Caribbean side. So, it naturally is the ideal place for those to want to enjoy water sports such as snorkeling or SCUBA diving, deep-sea fishing, etc. The town of Tamarindo is famous for excellent surfing conditions. However, there are also numerous national parks such as the Palo Verde wildlife sanctuary, only accessible by guided tour boat, where you can observe a variety of birds, monkeys, crocodiles, and iguanas. The Guanacaste area also offers kayak trips, Mangrove Tours, whitewater rafting, volcano hikes, ATV tours, and of course, more zipline canopy tours. A day trip to Arenal is possible from Guanacaste. Depending on the location of the hotel, the Liberia Airport is roughly ½ hour – 1 hour away. There will be a new Hilton Garden Inn opening across from the airport in Dec 2008, a nice option for guests who have an early departure.
CARIBBEAN COAST- despite its name, this is not necessarily the area to go for a beach vacation. Large portions of the coast are protected as national parks and backed by dense jungle. The best-known area is Tortuguero, 47,000 acres, with plenty of wetlands, rivers, lagoons, and canals that serve as a window through which the visitor can admire the amazing flora and fauna, making it a wonderful experience for nature lovers. Monkeys, caimans, sloths, toucans, manatees, jaguars, and over 405 species of birds abound in the area. Approximately 3000 green sea turtles come to shore each season between July and October to lay their eggs, with Hawksbill, Loggerhead, and Leatherback turtles also coming ashore July – Sept. There is an airstrip (currently closed for renovation) across from the Tortuga Lodge, with another airstrip 2 hours north (via boat) at Barra del Colorado.
DRIVING IN COSTA RICA: Costa Rica is a small country, but many places can take a longer amount of time to get to than you may expect. The narrow roads, while generally paved, are not always very good, with huge potholes, or are even washed out in the rainy season, plus there are lots of hills, and many curves! Signage is poor, and by their own admission, Tico (local) drivers are not good. Add to this the lack of sidewalks outside of San Jose, so people and animals are sharing the roads alongside cars. And, of course, except in San Jose, street lights are minimal at best! If you insist on renting a car, a 4-wheel drive is a must, especially in the rainy season. Secure parking isn’t readily available, and break-ins are evidently frequent. If clients don’t want a tour, recommend that they either fly (if possible), hire a driver, or utilize Gray Line, which provides connections just about anywhere a tourist wants to go.
A&K comments: this fam trip was sponsored by A&K, who naturally did a superb job! Our guide was unbelievable, knowledgeable about anything and everything. All details were handled perfectly, with contingency plans in place to account for weather delays or any other unforeseen issues.
CLIENT MOBILITY: whether traveling on an escorted tour or independently, clients must be relatively mobile in order to best experience the highlights of Costa Rica. They should be able to maneuver in and out of boats, handle a fair amount of steps and uneven terrain, walk several miles, etc. There are numerous modes of transportation used, from 3-12 passenger planes, 10-15 passenger boats, SUVs on very curvy, potholed roads, etc. Several people in our group ended up not feeling very well after experiencing some of the above!
ZIP LINE TOURS - In recent years, canopy experiences and rides have come into vogue in Costa Rica. There is NO government safety regulation of these activities. A few self-regulate and use acceptable safety practices. MOST do not. There have already been three deaths involving a canopy ride in Costa Rica and frankly, it is surprising that there have not been more.
TYPICAL SOUVENIRS: coffee, of course, with “Café Britt” being a recommended brand. Usually, the grocery store has the best prices. Other popular handicrafts are wood products, such as bowls, platters, carvings, etc.
FOOD & DRINK: a typical meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is “gallo pinto” or rice & beans (which I found relatively bland). Plantains are plentiful, and they serve a variety of tropical fruit, including excellent pineapple. Otherwise, lots of the standard chicken, beef, and fish. Costa Rican wine is not recommended by anyone! The beer, however, is fine, according to my husband. The primary brands are: Bavaria (gold, dark, and light), Imperial, and Pilsen. A popular mixed drink is a “Guaro Sour”, made from a sugar cane-based liquor named Guaro. Surprisingly, the coffee served is not always the best, except at the nicer hotels, since the “good stuff” is mostly exported.
PURA VIDA! Pura Vida (POO-rah VEE-dah), is a Costa Rican phrase you will hear quite often, that literally translated means "Pure Life." It is used as a greeting, a farewell, and to express satisfaction. PURA VIDA also means "I am doing alright", "I'm doing perfect" and "Thank you".
ARENAL NAYARA: Small lodge, with 24 wonderful casita rooms with outside shower (plus a standard inside shower), jacuzzi on the deck with view of Arenal Volcano, beautiful lush grounds, 1 restaurant.
MONTEVERDE LODGE: Located next to the Cloud Forest, outside the town of Santa Elena, this lodge offers standard accommodations, with walking trails on the grounds. Inviting restaurant/bar area with fireplace.
TORTUGA LODGE: Rustic lodge, very basic, across the river from the Airstrip (currently closed for renovation), and across the river from turtle nesting beach. Excellent guides offer trips down the river and “canals” to spot monkeys and numerous birdlife.
REALINTERCONTINENTAL: Located outside of the city, next to a mall, about 20-30 minutes from the San Jose Airport. Typical “business” hotel, large rooms, several restaurants, and a nice pool/garden area.
PEACE LODGE at LA PAZ WATERFALL GARDENS: This property, located about an hour from the San Jose Airport, would make a nice pre or post stay for clients touring Costa Rica, rather than staying right in the city. Every room has a jacuzzi and a stone fireplace, with waterfall “showers” and oversized balconies. The best part, however, is that the lodge is located at La Paz Waterfall Gardens. You could easily spend the entire day at the Park, with 3.5 kilometers of trails overlooking spectacular waterfalls, a hummingbird garden that enables you to see dozens of the gorgeous creatures up close, a butterfly observatory, serpentarium, as well as areas for monkeys, orchids, and much more, all within a beautiful, natural setting.