My trip review page
I usually do not write a "trip review" page. I usually do not take tours either -- we generally want to explore on our own, even in foreign countries. But for this trip, since this was our first trip to Central America and during our research we found out that driving would not be easy, and we would have more than a little language barrier (neither of us speaks Spanish), we decided to use transportation and tour services. Thus, as I started writing reviews on Tripadvisor for the hotels, restaurants and tour and transportation services that we patronized during the trip, I thought I might as well compile a trip review page.
In many ways this trip exceeded our expectations. First, it was much easier to get around than we thought -- at least in the places that we went to, we could get away with just speaking English, and the transportation and tour services that we used made things even easier. Second, we had a lot of luck with the weather -- we even saw Arenal Volcano clear and unobstructed by clouds! At Rio Celeste we also saw the sky-blue water, untainted by mud brought down by recent rains (click the thumbnail pictures below to see pictures taken at each location). We brought ponchos but never used them. We also did not get much insect bites -- the insect repellents we brought were never opened either. Third, the beauty of Costa Rica also exceeded our wildest expectations -- of course, in this day and age of internet and social media, we knew a great deal about this country before the trip, yet still, when we actually set our sight on the towering volcanoes, the surreally blue lagoons and splashing waterfalls, the pristine beaches and boundless ocean, oh, and the multitudes of unique and colorful creatures, we were constantly in awe. Without taking any dedicated birding tour, I easily tallied more than 70 new bird species (photographed), and I also saw and photographed other wild animals -- monkeys, sloths, lizards, caimans and crocodiles ... And last but not the least, the Ticos people were so nice and friendly, which made our travel much more enjoyable.
- Thursday, March 3: leaving from BWI at 09:05 AM, arriving in SJO at 12:55PM, hired private driver to drive to La Fortuna de San Carlos
- Thursday, March 3 -- Monday, March 7: La Fortuna (4 nights), of these days:
- Friday, March 4: Cano Negro
- Saturday, March 5: Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridge Park, La Fortuna Waterfall and Arenal Volcano 3-in-1 tour
- Sunday, March 6: Tenorio National Park/Rio Celeste
- Monday, March 7: hanging out in La Fortuna, and taking taxi-boat-taxi to Monteverde
- Monday, March 7 -- Wednesday 9: staying at Monteverde (2 nights), of these days:
- Tuesday, March 8: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Selvatura Park
- Wednesday, March 9: shuttle ride from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio
- Wednesday, March 9 -- Saturday, March 12: staying in Manuel Antonio (3 nights), of these days:
- Thursday, March 10: guided tour to Manuel Antonio National Park
- Friday, March 11: hanging out in Manuel Antonio and going to the beach by ourselves
- Saturday, March 12: morning: going to Manuel Antonio National Park by ourselves; afternoon: shuttle ride from Manuel Antonio to Alajuela (staying for 1 night)
- Sunday, March 13: leaving from SJO at 12:50PM, arriving in BWI at 7:30PM
Overall assessment of itinerary:
Overall I am very happy with this itinerary. We were lucky that we actually had one bonus day -- because of an impending storm, we had to change our flight to leave one day earlier, thus, the trip to Cano Negro was completely spontaneous and we were very happy to have taken it. If we had to do it all over again, however, I would have made a couple of minor tweaks: first, I would subtract one day from Manuel Antonio and add it to Monteverde. Don't get me wrong: Manuel Antonio is a nice place. If we had unlimited time, I would not take away any time from this location; heck, I would even add more! What I mean is that given the time constraints, and the fact that it is very hard to get into and out of Monteverde, and that the Cloud Forest has the most diverse wildlife, one more day in Monteverde would have allowed us to explore it more in depth and at a more leisurely pace. Second, I would not have taken a guided tour to Manual Antonio National Park and just explored on our own (which we actually did anyway).
A few more words regarding guided tours:
As I said we usually don't take tours and much prefer to explore on our own. This is certainly the case when we travel in North America, but also when we travel to other countries where we don't speak the language, such as Spain and Japan. The reason that we took more guided tours on this trip is twofolds: first, unfamiliarity -- we do not speak the language and did not know if we would be able to communicate with the locals. Second -- and not in any way to demean this wonderful country -- concern with public transportation. Unlike Spain and Japan, Costa Rica is a more wild and sparsely populated country and lacks the extensive public transportation system, especially passenger train networks. We also heard that driving is not easy and some roads are bad (which was confirmed during the trip -- the roads to Monteverde were notorious bad and unpaved). So, mainly, we took the tours for the purpose of transportation.
As it turned out, even these tours exceeded our expectations. The tour guides that we hired on this trip are generally nice, friendly and competent. They seem to be genuinely nice people, and not just for our tourism dollars. But as with all tours, since they have a fixed schedule and also have to accommodate other members of the group, inevitably sometimes they have to hurry along. At other times, as we had to pick up and wait for other tourists, valuable time was wasted. These are not the guides' fault per se, but rather the nature of business. On the other hand, they are usually very good at spotting wildlife (sometimes with help from other guides), and this enhances one's chance of seeing animals. Also, in general, the guides in Costa Rica do as they promise -- to take you to the attractions and tell you about the history and environment, but rarely, if ever, take you to souvenir shops, etc. to waste even more of one's valuable time (and money).
Detailed reviews of airlines, hotels, restaurants, tours and transportation services:
Without further ado I will list my reviews of the airlines, hotels, restaurants, tours and transportation services we have used on this trip.
- Southwest Airline: Recommended! The direct flights from BWI to SJO and back were short (< 5 hours), on time, and smooth. This may well be our default flights to Costa Rica. Also, Southwest does not charge a change fee (only the price difference). As we had to change our flight to the day earlier, this worked really well for us -- we had to just pay $8 per ticket difference! On the downside, we don't really like Southwest's seating policy (no pre-assigned seating), and you have to pay $25 to get into the early boarding group, and there is only one restroom in the back of the plane (they really try to squeeze in more seats!) which is very inconvenient.
Trip Planner/Travel Agency
- AnywhereCostaRica.com: Recommended! We already booked our flight and most of the hotels (except for the last day in Alajuela) before we contacted AnywhereCostaRica. We mainly used it to arrange travels and tours inside Costa Rica. They made our life easier, and I recommend them especially for first-time visitors to Costa Rica. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Hotel Monte Real in La Fortuna: Recommended! Budget hotel in town, not fancy but at a very convenient location, good as a home base for exploring Arenal and surrounding areas. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Hotel El Bosque in Monteverde: Recommended! Rustic lodge at the heart of the cloud forest, don't expect luxury but expect wildlife (lots of) here. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Hotel Costa Verde in Manuel Antonio: Highly Recommended! Arguably the best location in Manuel Antonio -- breathtaking, panoramic views from a high vantage point, yet within walking distance to the beach and a short bus ride to the national park. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Adventure Inn in Alajuela: Neutral (neither recommend nor recommend against). It was good for a last stop before departure (or as a first stop upon arrival), but nothing special. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Lava Lounge restaurant in La Fortuna: Not Recommended Americanized tourist food and not cheap, people seem to come for the booze mostly (to their credit, they do have an extensive drink menu). See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Don Rufino restaurant in Alajuela: Neutral (neither recommend nor recommend against). Good ambience but food is nothing special and very expensive. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- El Avion restaurant in Manuel Antonio: Recommended! Recommended for the view if not the food (good place to see sunset). See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
Tours, transportation and other services
- Guided boat tour to Cano Negro with Canoa Aventura: Highly Recommended! For $60 you get an all-day tour with transportation, snack and lunch, I think this is the best value of tours. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- 3-in-1 (Hanging Bridge, Waterfall, Volcano) guided tour by Rain Forest Explorers: Highly Recommended! Good "starter" tour to hit all the highlights in Arenal/La Fortuna. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Guided tour to Rio Celeste by Ecoterra: Recommended! Worthwhile trip, but experience may depend on weather (which was great for us on this particular day). See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Taxi-boat-taxi transfer from La Fortuna to Monteverde by Aventuras El Lago: Highly Recommended! If you need to travel from La Fortuna to Monteverde, in my opinion you should not consider anything else. The boat ride across Lake Arenal cuts the travel time in half (or more) on treacherous unpaved roads and gives one fantastic views of the lake and volcano. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Guided tour to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve by Trek Costa Rica: Recommended! I could not find the Tripadvisor page for this company so I will just write the review here: our guide (Frazier) was friendly, easy-going and good at spotting wildlife. We saw the famous Resplendent Quetzal and the elusive Three-wattled Bellbird, among other things. But this half-day trip is perhaps a little rushed, especially at the Hummingbird Gallery where there were so many dazzling hummingbirds flying about -- I could stay just there for a whole day! It is the best to hire the guide for half a day, then explore on your own for the rest of day in the reserve (the ticket to the reserve is good for the day). Unfortunately for us, we had another tour (at the Selvatura Park) scheduled for the afternoon and left the next day, so we never went back to the reserve (which is also why I say I want to add one more day to Monteverde).
- Selvatura Park in Monteverde: Neutral (neither recommend nor recommend against). I feel like I can't give this park a fair review, which is why I am not writing a Tripadvisor review for it to avoid biasing its ratings but a short review here. It seems like this park is more for the adrenaline junkies to do ziplining, etc. We just took the hanging bridge tour (with no guide). Since we already visited the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, the novelty of hanging bridges had worn off at this point. And because we did so during midday/early afternoon, we saw very few wildlife. There is a small hummingbird garden there, but you have to pay an extra $5 for entrance. We probably should have spent the afternoon in the reserve instead, but we already booked this visit through AnywhereCostaRica. Anyway, it probably is a good destination for people with different preferences, or at a better time; for us, it was a good visit, but perhaps not that memorable.
- Shuttle transfer from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio by Ride Costa Rica: Recommended! We were pleasantly surprised that this was not just a "plain" shuttle ride, but almost a guided tour -- our guide made several stops for us to see the scenery and also at Rio Tarcoles to see the crocodiles. See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
- Guided tour to Manuel Antonio National Park by Rancho Los Tucanes: Not Recommended. For Manuel Antonio National Park, I in fact don't recommend a guided tour, period. This is a small park and the wildlife is pretty conspicuous, I think you can easily explore on your own. There was also some issue with our guide ... See my detailed Tripadvisor review here.
And finally, my review of Costa Rica and Costa Rica tourism:
- Costa Rica Tourism: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! As far as our experience is concerned, Costa Rica tourism runs like a well-oiled machine. Most tour operators arrived at the hotel at the appointed time to pick you up. Occasionally there was a delay, and we saw one company picking up the wrong tourists which delayed our trip (they picked up people who were supposed to join us, and our tour operator had to find them), but by and large, all the tour companies seem to operate very efficiently and professionally. This is most evident in the town of La Fortuna which is a hub for many national parks and other attractions -- by 6:30 or 7 in the morning the town was abuzz with "Turismo" vans and buses. Most of the guides we worked with were competent, friendly and cordial. They seem to be genuinely nice people, not just interested in our tourist dollars. They also seem to be proud of what they do, and eager to tell us about their country. They really made our travel easier and more enjoyable.
- Costa Rica: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! The one question we kept asking ourselves was: why didn't we come to Costa Rica earlier? Costa Rica is a lot closer than one would imagine -- the flight is less than 5 hours from where we live, this is shorter than flying to the West Coast of the United States! Travel inside Costa Rica is not as easy as in the U.S., but with careful research and planning, one can get around without much difficulty. And what a splendid country! With the size of less than one-half of my home state Virginia (19,730 mi² vs. 42,775 mi²), it boasts 856 different species of birds, just a shade shy of the total of the entire North America! And it has other wildlife such as monkeys and sloths that are missing in North America. And the Ticos seem a peaceful, friendly and happy people, in fact, they don't even have a standing army. If only all countries can be like that! We are sure that we will come back to this country again and again.
That's all for the review. For pictures and narratives of each place we visited (Lafortuna/Arenal, Cano Negro, Tenorio/Rio Celeste, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio and Alajuela), please click the thumbnail images below:
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