Monkeys, Lizards and Sloths — Oh My!

Costa Rica – July/Aug 2012

I recently returned from my first visit to Costa Rica (a destination that has long been at the top of my “bucket list”) and I can tell you that it was MORE than worth the wait. I was there for a full week, and was able to tour several different areas of the country, and I can’t wait to go back and see some more.  You can find all of the photos on my Facebook page, grouped by destination/hotel, but here’s the detailed feedback about the trip:

We arrived in San Jose on a Saturday afternoon, and the airport was crowded and busy, but it was not difficult to find our guide – Victor – who was waiting to gather us up and hop on the shuttle to our first hotel. The ride from the capital city out into the cloud forest to the north of San Jose took about 90 minutes, but we stopped along the way to visit a traditional “soda” (a roadside restaurant) where we enjoyed an impromptu lesson in empanada-making.  It was delicious! The latter part of the drive was on some VERY steep and windy mountain roads, and I would not want to have done it in the dark, but all was forgotten when we arrived at El Silencio.

This gorgeous luxury eco-lodge sits on a 500-acre private nature reserve, with gently flowing rivers, steep hillsides, and hidden waterfalls. The overall focus is on health and well-being, and the property includes a full-service spa, its own organic gardens and fish ponds, a yoga platform in the forest, hiking trails, horse stables, and more.

We were greeted at the door with a refreshing mint and pineapple drink, and then escorted to our suite, a free-standing casita built into the hillside, furnished with native woods, rocking chairs on the deck, and a private outdoor hot-tub with a view. Dinner that evening (like all the meals we had at El Silencio) was fresh, organic, and so delicious that you never knew it was healthy! As a nice bonus, the room rates here include all your meals.

The next morning we fueled up with a hearty traditional breakfast of rice and beans and met our “eco-concierge” for a tour of the property and a hike to see three waterfalls. After lunch, we had a choice of several cultural activities – I chose to accompany our guide on a walk into the nearby town of Bajos del Toro for a tortilla-making lesson. “Olga” welcomed us into her house, patiently taught us the proper tortilla technique, and even shared shots of her home-brewed moonshine!

Back at the lodge that night we enjoyed drinks by the fireplace (yes, it was chilly in the tropics in July – that’s the cloud forest for you!) and were thrilled to find hot water bottles tucked into our beds after dinner.

Monday morning we drove from El Silencio to the Arenal Volcano area, about 90 minutes away, and toured another resort before we checked into our own hotel.

The Springs Resort and Spa is a luxury resort with a unique setting. The main resort, with its hot springs, multi-level pools, gourmet restaurants and spacious rooms, enjoys amazing views of  Arenal Volcano. At the other end of the 165-acre property (a very steep, windy, shuttle-bus ride away) is their Club Rio, with all sorts of adventurous activities from a rock-climbing wall, to tubing, kayaking, hiking, bird watching, and more. They even have an on-site rescue center for wild cats, where we saw ocelots, margays and a puma. That’s also where we saw our first sloth! He was just hanging out in the trees above us. The perfect photo op!  NOTE: For those of you who are fans of The Bachelor, you may recognize this resort because they shot an episode here.

Next, we checked in at the Arenal Kioro, our home for the next two nights. This 27-acre property has 53 suites, grouped into small two-story buildings, and every suite has an unobstructed view of the volcano. My spacious suite had two queen beds, a separate sitting area with a queen pullout sofa, a spacious bathroom and separate shower/dressing room, an in-room hot tub, and a balcony with a view. We toured the gardens and grounds, which include a traditional swimming pool as well as cascading hot springs, a full-service spa, a gourmet restaurant, a poolside bar, and a lovely gazebo area for weddings.

Tuesday morning we enjoyed their breakfast buffet (Costa Rican coffee, rice and beans again – I could live on that!) and then headed out for a busy day of touring the Arenal area. We began with the Sky Trek/Sky Tram, which includes an aerial tram through the canopy, with views of Lake Arenal below. At the top, some of us broke off to try the zipline tour back down to the base, while others elected to ride the tram back down to go and hike the nearby hanging bridges. Since I’ve already ziplined in other destinations, I decided to try the hanging bridges – which proved to be a very wet decision. As we crossed the first bridge, the skies opened, and we were treated to a true rainforest experience! My shoes will never be the same again after that dash through the soggy forest trails, but at least my camera survived 🙂

After our morning adventures, we toured another local resort. Arenal Manoa is a great little family-friendly resort with low-rise bungalows sprinkled throughout the lushly-landscaped property. Each room has a private porch with volcano views, and the resort has hot springs, a pool, a swim-up bar, and a lovely open-air restaurant where we had lunch. Room rates at this hotel are surprisingly affordable, and it would be a great option for a family on a budget.

From there, it was a short ride to the Penas Blancas River for our float trip, with Aventuras Arenal. We split up into two large rafts, grabbed some paddles and headed off down the river. Along the way, our guide pointed out monkeys, crocodiles, sloths, iguanas, vultures, and basilisk lizards. It was a fun, relaxing way to learn a little bit about the flora and fauna of the area, and enjoy a raft trip at the same time.

Dinner that evening was at the Royal Corin Resort, an elegant, European property that felt very different from the others that we had seen thus far. With its thermal pools, decadent spa, gourmet restaurant, sleek modern lounge, and spacious suites, this resort would be perfect for someone who wants to come home from a day of adventuring and enjoy all the creature comforts of a very modern resort.

Wednesday morning we were back on the bus for the four-hour ride south to Manuel Antonio. I have to admit that the first part of the journey, through twisty mountain roads, did give me my first-ever taste of car sickness, but the views were outstanding. We stopped halfway for lunch at a great little roadside restaurant that’s next door to a true Costa Rican landmark – the Rio Tarcoles Bridge. You feel like you’re taking your life in your hands when you walk out along this long narrow bridge, with cars and trucks whizzing by you, but when you look over the side into the river it takes your breath away!  Dozens and dozens of crocodiles sunbathe on the sandbanks, oblivious to the camera-toting tourists above.

Later that afternoon we arrived in Manuel Antonio and checked into the Hotel Parador Resort and Spa. Like most of the properties in this area, Parador is built high on the hillside, with breathtaking views over the Pacific Ocean. The beach is a long, sweaty hike (or a short shuttle ride) away, though I never made it down there – opting instead to cool off in the adults-only infinity pool with a Bavaria Dark beer by my side. My garden-view room had two double beds, a furnished balcony, and a pleasant enough bathroom, but the real strength of this property is in the public areas – multiple pools, multiple bars, a full-service spa, and richly-decorated interiors (restaurant, lobby, function space) with a heavy Spanish Colonial influence. We also toured some of the suites, which are in their own building to one side of the resort, and they were much more modern and luxurious than the standard rooms. That night (and the next) we were treated to a spectacular lightning storm the likes of which I have never seen before!

Thursday morning we enjoyed an al fresco breakfast at the Parador (complete with sloths dozing in the trees around us) and then headed to Manuel Antonio National Park for a hike. The trail wanders about a mile into the park and then opens out onto a beautiful beach. Along the way we saw monkeys, spiders, snakes, butterflies, sloths, and all sorts of exotic plants. On the beach, we encountered the most brazen and curious wild raccoons I’ve ever seen. They would sneak up and rifle through beach bags and backpacks while people sunned themselves on a towel just inches away! After the hike, we shopped our way through the local vendors’ stalls for souvenirs, and then hopped back on the bus for another hotel visit.

Arenas del Mar Beach and Nature Resort was one of my favorite properties that we toured. It has a stunning setting, cascading down the jungle hillside to its own beach (something lacking in many of the other hotels in the Manuel Antonio area). From up top, at the main pool and lobby bar, there are breathtaking views over the Pacific. Down below, there’s another pool where monkeys were playing in the trees, and we dined at tables right on the sand with the water lapping the shore nearby. There are spacious suites that could easily accommodate most families, and guests can walk down the beach to Manuel Antonio National Park.

Back at the Parador that afternoon we enjoyed another dip in the pool and sunset cocktails on a covered deck watching the evening thunderstorm roll in. Then we headed into town (Quepos) for dinner at a funky little restaurant called El Avion.

Friday we checked out and toured one last Manuel Antonio area hotel before driving north along the coast to Jaco.  Si Como No Resort and Spa is closer to town, and has some great family-friendly amenities. The main pool has a water slide and swim-up bar; there’s an air-conditioned movie theater with nightly shows; and they have a butterfly garden across the road.

After about an hour’s drive we passed through the little surfing town of Jaco and reached Playa Herradura just to the north. There we stopped for lunch and a tour of the beautiful Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort. The Los Suenos development is very large, and includes a condo community and a marina in addition to the Marriott resort. It is very popular with sportfisherman, who dock their boats there to pursue sailfish and marlin, and I was eager to check out the resort itself. I was not disappointed! This was the most “American” of the properties that we visited, but it still retained lots of local flavor. The décor was Spanish, with plenty of stone, intricate iron work, and cascading fountains. There’s a nice beach, a challenging 18-hole golf course, a casino, a large spa, multiple restaurants, an extensive network of connecting pools, meeting/event space, and a supervised kids’ club.

Our final destination that day (and our home for the night) was the Hotel Villa Caletas. This absolutely unique and stunning property cannot adequately be described in words – it must be seen to be believed. The property is built into the hillside, with hundreds and hundreds of steps everywhere (it is definitely not ADA-friendly), but it has 180-degree vistas of the Gulf of Nicoya, the coast from Jaco to Herradura, and the Nicoya Peninsula beyond. Every room and suite is different, but all are elaborately decorated. And the main bar and restaurant surround an amazing open-air amphiteater where guests gather to sip a cocktail, listen to soothing music, and watch the sun slip into the ocean.

We enjoyed a farewell dinner there at the hotel, and departed the next morning for the San Jose airport and our flights back to the U.S.

Here are my overall thoughts/impressions on Costa Rica:

  • The country that invented “eco-tourism” is really doing it right! The resorts are well integrated with their surroundings, and all are making efforts to educate and involve guests in conservation.
  • The Costa Ricans that we met were uniformly friendly, helpful, and great ambassadors for their country. Their “Pura Vida” attitude is infectious. It is used to mean many things, but loosely translates to “oh well, such is life”, or “this is living!”
  • This is definitely not a “flop on the beach” destination, and anyone who just parks themselves at an all-inclusive beach resort in Costa Rica is missing out on a lot. There is so much to see and do in the interior of the country, that I would recommend an itinerary that combines at least two or more regions.
  • I was wary of traveling there during the “Green Season”, but I learned that the weather actually varies by region, and is not uniformly wet/rainy in the summer. The tropical downpours that we did experience were dramatic, but brief, and in no way detracted from the trip.
  • There are lodges/resorts at a wide variety of price points, and for all different types of travelers, from honeymooners to families. We mostly focused on 4- and 5-star luxury properties, but there are also condos, rental houses, and more.
  • A little bit of Spanish goes a long way. I was wishing I had paid more attention in high school, but even a simple hello/goodbye/please/thank you in the local language is much appreciated.

This is not a country that can be fully appreciated in one trip, and I am already plotting my return. Pura Vida!

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