Costa Rica is one country on a tiny land bridge in Central America that connects North and South America. And it seems that rather than having less fauna and flora, it's all just crowded into a smaller place. The Costa Rican government made accessible these diverse natural areas by setting aside a huge portion of the land for National Parks, and ecotourism is a major emphasis. We had an amazing trip in 2007, and 9 years later we are planning another trip back. Our first trip was a combination of an Adventures By Disney (ABD) trip and an extension planned by Costa Rica Expeditions (CRE) (That report can be found HERE). With two young girls at the time and a kids travel free promotion, the ABD was economical and well organized, and expertly guided! Our short extension with CRE was top notch and also economical. We've recommended CRE to many friends who have also had phenomenal trips planned and they are handling our 2016 trip, as well as an independent cruise ship excursion we have planned in Golfito with other people on our Azamara cruise. (report will be HERE 4/2016)
In 2007, we traveled with 10 and 12 yo girls and had a priority of seeing lots of wildlife. We arrived in San Jose in June. Yes, June! There was a reason there was a kids free promotion going on! It was hot, and it was humid, and it really did feel like nothing ever dried. But the wildlife and seeing the rain forest at the height of its rainy season was well worth it. Our next trip (which I will of course review here!) will be during the more traditional winter high and dry season. I'll be interested to see the differences.
We stayed our first night at the JW Marriott in San Jose. The site of an old coffee plantation, the hotel is set outside of the city, and was a comfortable and beautiful place to stay with it's distant views of volcanoes and Spanish Colonial architecture. We met with our Adventures By Disney guides. ABD trips always have at least two; one ABD guide who handles logistics and one local guide who handles local guiding, translations, and working with other location specific guides brought in to help lead the daily activities. Although most trips include 5-6 families with 4 or more members, and a trip can include over 30 people every activity is divided so that you are never visiting a site with a group larger than 10 people. The first evening was "on our own" so we enjoyed a swim in the beautiful pool area and an early dinner.
Day 1 San Jose to Arenal Area
The following day, we had a welcome breakfast and were introduced to the other families and our guides, and boarded our bus to enjoy our first activity. The tour was called "Pura Vida" , which is a buzz phrase used in Costa Rica meaning the pure life! With that attitude in mind, we set out expecting (embracing!) the daily rain showers mixed with bright bursts of hot sun! We traveled to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. This ecotourist park was a perfect start for our journey, allowing us to see in captivity many of the beautiful birds, insects and animals we could expect to spot later in the wild!
We had lunch at the La Paz Lodge and traveled to Arenal where we checked into the Arenal Kioro for three nights. The hotel had enormous suites with a full bath, separate sleeping area behind a small wall, and indoor hot tub overlooking the view of the Volcan Arenal beyond the huge panoramic windows. While the volcano was active during our visit, sometimes it was hidden by clouds. When the clouds cleared we could see smoke, but not the red lava sometimes visible. Like most natural phenomenons, seeing it largely depends on weather and natural conditions.
At dinner ABD arranged for a local high school dance troupe and their teachers to entertain us at dinner in a private dining room at Arenal Kioro.
Day 2 Arenal
We headed out in the rain to go ziplining at the Arenal Observatory. This was a highlight activity for most on our trip. Unfortunately, we encountered a challenge. One thing you learn about Costa Rica is that while the distances are small, the terrain is rough. Renting a car is possible, but without experience driving in the area it can be very challenging. Additionally, a distance of 50 miles may look like a hour long trip, but with the rough, slow roads, it could easily take several hours! Our experience with the guided tour proved that, and made us glad we were not driving!
We arrived at bridge we needed to take in order to get to the Zip Line. Unfortunately, it was under construction. This required a pow wow between our guides and our driver, a call to the home office and a decision...
...not to attempt this in the mini bus! Most drivers were fjording the river in a shallow spot to get across. But our driver and corporate Disney felt it was too risky, and even if we made a safe passage across, the rain could quickly change the conditions making it impossible to get back after our zip line adventure. Had we been on our own, we might have been able to overrule and give it try, but we also would not have known where to drive IN THE RIVER where it was (relatively) safe. Had I been in a rental I would not have tried it, AND I also would not have had a great back up plan like our guides did!
The back up plan was hike in the Hanging Bridges of Arenal. Several folks were disappointed, but the alternate activity did not disappoint!
Our large group was divided into small groups of 2-3 families each guided by one of our ABD guides or a local park guide, we had excellent wildlife viewing, especially some of the tinier things
Meeting Native Costa Ricans and Hildago Hot Springs
After the hike at the Arenal Hanging Bridges, we returned to the hotel for a session with a family of indigenous Costa Ricans who gave a little talk about indigenous culture, which was translated from their native language to Spanish, which was translated to English by our native guide! The women in the group led a crafting activity for the kids and interested adults. Again, despite the fact that the trip was run by Disney and one might expect a more "magical" Disney-fied experience, we were having another genuine cultural connection we would not have been likely to have without the guided trip!
At every transition, our guides would inform us of exactly what would be needed for the next activity. We had a private dinner at the Hildago Hot Springs. We were told to wear our bathing suits and bring clothing to change into for dinner after enjoying the hot springs. The hot springs are a natural geothermal phenomenon. Think of it as the underground expression of those volcanoes!! There are series of natural pools that get warmer as you get closer to the hot spring. Enjoying them at night, in the dark, was exciting for the kids and adults alike!
Day 3 Arenal to Rio Sarapiqui River Rafting
The next morning our ABD guides once again recommended wearing bathing suits for our river rafting adventure on the Rio Sarapiqui. It was good advice, though the river was not wild, it was wet!
After changing of clothes, we made our way to a pineapple farm where we learned about the agricultural business in Costa Rica and enjoy more fresh fruit! So much and so fresh that our daughter actually developed a transient rash!
Day 4 Arenal to Pacific Coast (Manual Antonio)
The next day we left Arenal Kioro for a small plane flight to Manual Antonio. In the morning, the skies cleared and we had some amazing wildlife spotting at Breakfast and Arenal made it's debut without any clouds!
After our quick flight to the Pacific Coast, our bus driver met us with our luggage and transferred us to the Tulemar Beach Resort on the Pacific where we had lunch and surfed at the beach for the afternoon. By late afternoon we were checked into the Hotel Parador in Quepos. This town is the gateway to the Manual Antonio National Park. We had a relaxing afternoon at the beautiful infinity edge pool at the Hotel Parador.
Day 5 Manual Antonio National Park
We started our day early, meeting the National Park guides with our tour guides and dividing into small groups. Like any highly popular National Park, Manuel Antonio had many tour groups of 15-20 people moving through the park at the same time. It was more crowded than I prefer to experience wildlife. The wildlife was very habituated to human beings. This meant while wildlife was easy to spot, the monkeys were extremely aggressive. It was disappointing not to observe natural behavior and even a little dangerous because they would approach people very closely and you could not leave any bag or object unattended on the beach or the monkeys would carry it off to check for food. In our case, when we arrived on the beach, our tour guides watched all of our gear and shoo'ed the monkeys off so we could enjoy the beach. If you visit this area on your own, be prepared to leave a member of your party behind to "guard" your bags; even if you don't have food, the monkeys can take your camera or shoes up into a distant tree to check them, including opening zippers and plastic bags! Of course, you will be encouraged to do you part and not feed the monkeys, but, unfortunately, anyplace this accessible to so many people; rules get broken and go unenforced! The trade off is that the national park is easily accessible from the Beach areas, so for people who have only a short time to visit Costa Rica, the Quepos area is a good choice to experience both the beautiful Pacific Ocean and a national park with lots of easy to spot wildlife.
My advice to first time visitors, who have a real interest in wildlife, is to find an area a little more off the beaten path. We were fortunate to extend our trip to see more wildlife in Tortuguero on the Atlantic Coast during this trip (that report is linked here) and nearly a decade later, plan to see the quieter Corcovado Park on the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific side (that report will be linked here 4/16).
Day 6 Manual Antonio/Quepos to San Jose
Our last full day with our Adventures By Disney tour, we again flew from the west coast back to San Jose where we had one last night at the JW Marriott. After saying farewell to our new friends and excellent tour guides, we extended our trip with a city tour of San Jose and then transferred Tortugeuro with Costa Rica Expeditions. (link to report about Tortugeuro with CRE here)
Day 7 San Jose
Because we had a an extension to our trip, we had the next day free to take a tour of the city of San Jose, Interestingly, every Costa Rican person we met discouraged us from visiting San Jose. In hindsight, comparing San Jose to other Latin capitals, I see why local people we met felt this way. There are better preserved "colonial" era cities in South and Central America and yet there is little that rivals the level of what Costa Rica has to offer in terms preserved park lands and wildlife- so of course the local folks want to show you their very best when you visit! That said, we enjoyed our sight seeing in San Jose, even if the particular independent tour we took was disappointing. After a week touring with the amazing guides at ABD, this hotel excursion desk recommended tour lacked the attention to detail and personal service we had just experienced. But despite the boring tour guide and the obligatory gift shop stop, we enjoyed the city of San Jose and the sites we experienced there.
We drove in the bus around some of the major plazas in the city and stopped at the spectacularly renovated Teatro Nacional (19th century National Theater) poked our head in the Cathedral and toured the very well endowed Museo D'oro (a terrific pre Columbian gold and art museum that is part of the national bank )
Our trip continues!! Tortuga Lodge in Tortuguero with Costa Rica Expeditions HERE