Costa Rica May 2013

Staff Member: Dan Crandall
Travel Dates: May 2013
Destinations Visited:  Manuel Antonio, San Jose, Pacuare River, Selva Bananito, Bocas del Toro islands in Panama, Arenal Volcano

This was a Costa Rica site inspection that I built around a May, 2013 tourism trade show in San Jose, Costa Rica. I visited a number of great new hotels and destinations for AWR clients to consider in the future!

DAY 1 — Arrival San Jose / Drive to Manuel Antonio

Crocodiles of Tarcoles

Crocodiles of Tarcoles

San Jose International Airport is a clean, modern international airport. I arrived early in the day on a redeye. I cleared customs without any issues and picked up a rental car with my local guide, who drove me to the central Pacific coast’s Manuel Antonio area with stops along the way. Costa Rica is a ruggedly beautiful country, with loads of jagged forested mountains interspersed with rivers and vast farm fields. We stopped at several road-side diners to sample local foods and drinks and also made a stop in Jaco to scout the beach and downtown – if you are a young backpacker surfer, you’ll like Jaco.  The water looked extremely rough and dangerous to me though, and while the beach was long, it abutted the town so there was little charm to it. A highlight en-route to Manuel Antonio was stopping at the Tarcoles bridge along the way to watch massive crocodiles directly below, swimming casually in the current. Beautiful and trance inducing, so smooth, graceful and lethal, I could have watched them all day. Scarlet macaws screamed past us at one point, as they made their way back to nearby Carara National Park, which is home to one of Costa Rica’s largest breeding populations of this lustrous rare bird.

Manuel Antonio is about a 3 to 3.5 hour drive as a straight shot from San Jose with the new highway.  With our stops, it took us about 8.

Arriving here, the first thing you notice is how built up it is. Hotels and lodges line the road for several miles leading into the park. It’s Costa Rica’s most popular park for many reasons but exclusivity is not one of them. However, most hotels are situated away from the road, on a ridge overlooking the ocean, so the views are often special no matter where you stay.

Frog seen during a night walk in Costa Rica

Frog seen during a night walk in Costa Rica

Tonight I stayed at the first-class Si Como No, a gem of a hotel. Barefoot luxury, very environmental, very clean and comfortable, great views, good food on site. Uniquely, they have an upper pool designated for adults and a larger lower pool designated for families. This hotel is a good choice for families, couples and single travelers alike. The hotel makes it easy to do an easy and interesting guided night walk on their small nature reserve across the street where you can get some nice looks at a variety of nocturnal amphibians and insects.

DAY 2 — Manuel Antonio snorkeling catamaran cruise

Midworld near Manuel Antonio offers plenty of fun

Midworld near Manuel Antonio offers plenty of fun

This morning I visited Midworld which was a great way to kick start my short stay here in Manuel Antonio.  First I joined their ATV tour to a waterfall where everyone enjoyed a refreshing swim and the opportunity for a high cliff jump. After a delicious lunch, I traveled with their zipline crew and did the superman zipline onsite- it’s one of the longest of its kind in the world and a fantastic experience!

In the afternoon, I enjoyed a relaxing catamaran tour around Manuel Antonio’s scenic Bay of Biesanz. It started at about 10 am, ended about 3 pm, and included a nice BBQ picnic lunch onboard. The catamaran had a fun slide from the upper deck, from which you can also jump as a de facto high-dive. Calm waters. Lots of fun plus the opportunity for a lots of swimming. The snorkeling was very sub-par however, and today we didn’t see any dolphins or whales. So while it’s a fun excursion anytime of year for simple ocean going pleasure, I’d recommend this activity December / February or August / September when the whale watching (humpbacks and pilot whales) could add more excitement to the trip. Dolphins can however be encountered around Manuel Antonio year-round.

When I returned, I drove the short distance to my hotel for this evening, the Arenas del Mar, a superlative 5-star hotel that is a must-stay if you are a family without budget restraints or a romantic couple with a little extra to spend. An amazing place, with world-class service. Uniquely, this hotel has access directly to 2 beaches.

DAY 3 — Manuel Antonio sea kayaking

Scenic sea kayaking awaits around Manuel Antonio and beyond

Scenic sea kayaking awaits around Manuel Antonio and beyond

This morning I relaxed at the public beach. It’s a long, broad, popular strand of sand just outside the park entrance and abuts a small community of bars and seafood restaurants, many of which run an ancillary beach-side bar and food service. Beach-goers can rent chairs and umbrellas easily. There’s a surfing school at the north end of the beach, just below Arenas del Mar. The surf was a little choppy but as an experienced swimmer, it seemed fine to me. You may want to take precautions though and check in with hotel staff before heading down for tips and advice on water/swimming conditions.

In the afternoon, I joined a great guide from Iguana Tours for a sea kayak trip along the nearby rocky coast. It was rainy but that didn’t dampen the spirits of a sloth that we watched as it used the electrical lines near the put-in as a virtual ‘vine’ to get from it’s feeding tree back to it’s baby, which we also saw.  The sea kayaking was a nice, easy paddle, and I recommend the half-day excursion for anybody who enjoys sea kayaking who has a little extra time on the coast.

DAY 4 — Manuel Antonio National Park guided walk

There's more to Manuel Antonio than sloths and monkeys

There’s more to Manuel Antonio than just sloths and monkeys

I did an early morning Manuel Antonio National Park guided walk this morning – highly recommended anytime of year – which includes several hours of nature interpretation, wildlife viewing through spotting scopes, and access with your park pass for an entire day on the park’s beaches. In particular, Playa Manuel Antonio is a spectacular stretch, perhaps Costa Rica’s most beautiful beach. Bring a daypack on your guided walk loaded with what you’ll need for a day – swim gear, sun screen, sunglasses, a towel, snacks or a lunch, bottled water, a good book and insect repellent. The wildlife in the park is fantastic – loads of monkeys, sloths, coatis, and abundant birds.

I drove back to San Jose late this afternoon and began the trade show.

DAYS 4-7 — Tourism trade show in San Jose / San Jose hotel site inspections

Days and evenings were spent at trade show functions. We did fit in some site inspections however.

San Jose’s Hotel Park Inn is a modern, high rise hotel with great service and good value rooms, however I’d probably suggest this more for business travelers than tourists, generally.

El Presidente – this fine 3-star hotel is right downtown and provides consitently fine service. It’s our “go-to” hotel for our mid-range clients who want to stay downtown San Jose.

Wyndham San Jose-Herradura – great location near the international airport and eminently comfortable for business people and travelers requiring a luxury hotel near the airport.

San Jose Marriott – a super comfortable, large hotel away from downtown, once a colonial mansion. It’s a great Marriott as Marriots go! Located near a golf course, it has a nice, large pool, with a sweeping expanse of groomed grounds surrounding the renaissance property.

Hotel Grando de Oro: Currently the #1 hotel in San Jose on Trip Advisor, it’s impossible to argue it’s lofty status. It is a first-rate, vintage place to stay, a former Presidential Palace converted to a boutique hotel with a fine location. A highly regarded gourmet restaurant is on-site with a fantastic wine selection. Highly recommended for a city stay.

DAY 8 — Pacuare River rafting

After the rush of the Pacuare, comes the serenity at Selva Bananito

After the rush of the Pacuare, comes the serenity of Selva Bananito

Today started early with a pick up by our guides for our scenic, exhilarating whitewater rafting trip down the Pacuare River. The put in was about 1.5 hours from San Jose, and it was nearly a full day rafting, with a late lunch at the rafting center but snacks served on the river. The Pacuare is highly recommended! A day trip is great but even better is 1 night/2 day trip (or a 2 night / 3 day trip) within the context of a grander Costa Rica tour, like our 7 day Adventure tour which you can set up to start any day of the year.  We just had a day but we loved it! The water was slightly low, but the Class III rapids were a challenge and the scenery fantastic.

Following take out, we continued in the late afternoon to enchanting Selva Bananito Lodge on the southern lowland Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. We include this property on our 9 day Caribbean adventure.

DAY 9 — Selva Bananito hike and canyoning

Canyoning at Selva Bananito, where it all started!

Canyoning at Selva Bananito, where it all started!

It was raining in the morning, which led us to relax on our comfy, open air bungalow sipping tropical juices, while hanging in our hammock. It slowed down enough for us to decide to do a rainforest hike/canyoning combo. Canyoning in Costa Rica started here – this is the original experience and loads of fun. It is different than other canyoning trips in the country. At Selva Bananito, when you canyon there, you need to love nature, be a fairly experienced hiker, and be physically fit. There are challenges beyond simple heights. But being immersed in nature was amazingly energizing. The property has its own reserve (and farm), but importantly Selva Bananito borders a massive rainforest reserve, La Amistad National Park. It’s not a luxury property, but for mid-range travelers seeking an authentic adventure experience in nature, Selva Bananito is a perfect fit.

DAY 10 — Border crossing to Panama / Boat to Bocas del Toro Islands

Before Panama, a fun (wet) horse ride through Selva Bananito's scenic grounds

Before Panama, a fun (wet) horse ride through Selva Bananito’s scenic grounds

Before we left for Panama, Selva Bananito arranged for us to enjoy a fun horse ride around the area. It was raining, but that didn’t stop us. Unfortunately time didn’t allow us to go deeper into the heart of nature, but we recommend a longer ride to get into the wild lands that surround the lodge.

There are easier ways to get to the Bocas del Toro islands but part of the fun of travel is the journey. After a fun, fast horse ride at Selva Bananito, and armed with boxed lunches, we transferred to Pulpería La Lucha. There we might our driver to Sixaola, where we crossed a rickety bridge over the border into Panama, enjoyed immigration formalities in a blistering rain, and met up with our guide who drove us to coastal Almirante. Here we hopped on a $5 public boat taxi (Bocas Marine or Taxi 25 both work fine) to Bocas del Toro. This took about an hour, and when we arrived, we hired another 10 – 15 minute boat taxi to our lodge tonight, the wonderful Eclypse de Mar Lodge. We had a good feeling here simply by virtue of the all-encompassing, warm, inviting sun – no more rain!!

DAY 11 — Bocas del Toro beach and snorkeling

Eclypse Del Mar

Eclypse Del Mar

Today we joined the lodge boat for an outing to a nearby island’s beach where we lounged in the sun, ate a seafood lunch, and snorkeled from the shore (and the boat, en-route back to the lodge). We enjoyed our stay here – the lodge’s standard bungalows are built over the water, with the floors incorporating window panels that let you ‘snorkel’ from our living room. The decks have steps that lead right into the ocean. It’s a beautiful lodge, and highly recommended for fun loving couples on a romantic trip. It is close to Bastimentos town – about a 5 minute water taxi away. While that opens up dining, nightlife, and neat cultural opportunities, it can be a little noisy so bring ear plugs to be safe and use the in-room stereo for soft, flowing Carib music. We went into town tonight and it was a cool, authentic Island experience just wandering the main pedestrian way.

DAY 12 — Bocas del Toro

Today we transferred about 1 hour by boat to the incomparable Tranquilo Bay Eco-Lodge. This is an intimate, all-inclusive 6 unit luxury lodge tucked away in a secluded bay. The lodge is situated on a low ridge that looks onto the aquamarine sea and is home to a beautiful stretch of rainforest that offers excellent birding. Besides rainforest hiking, sea kayaks are always available for easy kayaking in calm protected waters that offer clear waters for snorkeling. There are loads of nearby sites to see easily reached through the lodge’s boat. The local guides are world-class. Tranquilo Bay is easily worth visiting for a week and it’s an outstanding property for families, couples, and friends.

DAY 13 — Flight to San Jose / Transfer to Arenal

Today was mostly a travel day, starting with a peaceful 1 hour speed boat ride through mangroves to Bocas airport, where we caught a Nature Air flight direct to San Jose’s Pavas airport. Here we met our guide and wee drove the 3+ hours to La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano). We stayed in the Hotel Kioro, a neat 4+ star hotel with it’s own cascading hot springs pool and spacious, apartment like rooms with in-house hot tubs. Great views of the volcano, arguably one of the best of any property in the area.  While in Arenal, we also did a site inspection of the fabulous Hotel Nayara, consistently one of the top reviewed luxury hotels in Arenal. Since all of our Costa Rica tours are customizable, we can substitute any of our listed Arenal hotels for either of these great properties.

DAY 14 — Arenal Lake paddle boarding / Lost Canyon canyoning

This morning we joined up with the Desafio team to enjoy a day of paddle boarding on Lake Arenal and canyoning in Lost Canyon. Both were lots of fun. Young, enthusiastic guides, great equipment and logistical support, plus some world-class locations for these activities all added up to an amazing experience. Later, we checked out of the Hotel Kioro and moved into the Hotel Manoa, one of our favorite mid-range hotels in the Arenal area. It offers a number of wonderful pools, gorgeous views of the volcano, spacious rooms, and large, welcoming groomed grounds. Outstanding value!

DAY 15 — Travel to San Jose

After a casual morning enjoying Hotel Manoa’s pools, we transferred back to San Jose, where we overnighted at Finca Rosa Blanca, a beautiful boutique hotel set within a lovely coffee plantation on the elevated outskirts of San Jose. This is a beautiful luxury property, with a tremendous restaurant that overlooks the glittering lights of the city. This is a great romantic getaway property for couples.

DAY 16 — Departure

This morning, we had an early morning transfer to the airport and said our goodbyes to San Jose.

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