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Costa Rica destination advice & recommendations

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  • Cat

    Hey, couldn’t find a CR topic (but I didn’t spend too long searching, so sorry if there’s one already!

    If you love searching for wildlife, and can forgo creature comforts and slum it with the beasties a bit, my first recommendation is…

    https://www.headforpoints.com/2020/07/25/review-yatama-ecolodge-costa-rica/

    Cat

    If you want a stunning beach brimming with wildlife, as an alternative to Manuel Antonio, as you’re not a fan of throngs of tourists, or overpriced, underwhelming accommodation that’s a couple of miles from the beach (I say this 2 weeks before going there myself for the first time, so I reserve the right to change my tune entirely!), I highly recommend Punta Uva and Playa Chiquita. Both are stunning, with wild, driftwood scattered beaches with verdant rainforest right up to the waters edge in places.

    I’ve been here a week, and have seen sloths, macaws, hummingbirds, howler monkeys and many, many spiders (it’s not the place for arachnophobes!).

    I’m staying in Tierra de Suenos, which is lovely. Our bungalow is surrounded by jungle, we have a hammock, the breakfasts are decent, there are yoga classes on the grounds and plenty of options for food nearby and it’s bookable on hotels.com!

    Restaurant-wise, I recommend Selvin’s – the lobster and the rondon were both excellent. Otherwise, explore the local sodas that you can’t find marked on Google maps.

    I’ll add more as I work my way around the country!

    NorthernLass

    Following with interest, @Cat (apologies if I’ve confused you flitting back and forth with the user names!) What’s the weather like at this time of year
    – though the teenager turns 17 this year and has announced he’s fed up with being dragged around the globe so from 2023 we’ll be lucky enough to have much more flexibility with travel dates.

    The real Swiss Tony

    We went to Costa Rica in August 2016. Weather was great – cloudy inland, then hot/tropical on the Pacific coast. We were there for I think 6 nights and only had one short heavy shower. Stayed here https://costaverde.com/accommodations-2/727-fuselage-home/ for a few nights, which worked very well in terms of space as I have three kids. As I recall the Caribbean coast is wetter in August. Quality was very high but it was expensive, especially down by Manuel Antonio – after that we went to Disney and I recall prices being cheaper in the theme parks…

    To add, I certainly didn’t feel overwhelmed by tourists at Manuel Antonio in any way, aside from the slight circus of getting into the park in the first place.

    Cat

    Following with interest, @Cat (apologies if I’ve confused you flitting back and forth with the user names!) What’s the weather like at this time of year
    – though the teenager turns 17 this year and has announced he’s fed up with being dragged around the globe so from 2023 we’ll be lucky enough to have much more flexibility with travel dates.

    I did wonder – is NorthernLass your alter ego Anna (or is it the other way around?).

    That’s a good point – school summer holidays is slap-bang in the middle of rainy season, although that means different things in different areas.

    On the Southern Caribbean coast (Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Playa Cocles, Playa Chiquita, Punta Uva, Manzanillo) that tends to mean that it sometimes experiences biblical downpours, although that seems to be in the late afternoon/evening and at night mostly (although I am basing this on just 10 days…). Sometimes it’s overcast, and sometimes there’s blazing sunshine, and there’s very little predicting which (certainly none of our weather apps appears to have any more of a clue than a magic 8 ball).

    Around Tortuguero it seems to be more likely to rain at any time of day (again – in my limited experience), but don’t let that put you off – it’s glorious and so hot that the rain can be a relief.

    The Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui area is the part of CR with the highest annual rainfall. It pretty much rains a tonne at any time of year (which is why it’s so very verdant and brimming with wildlife). Come prepared with a cagoule / poncho and wellies.

    I’ll update on the weather as I get further West.

    If others can give info about the weather at other times of year when they’ve been, that would be awesome!

    WRT the teenager Anna – it’s a hard life, isn’t it? Being forced to travel and explore some of the most beautiful parts of the world! It’s a bonus for you though! Does it give you more flexibility with destinations, as well as dates?

    NorthernLass

    @Cat, well I thought I needed a proper forum handle back when the HFP format changed but my tech shortcomings mean it’s often down to which device I’m using 🤣.
    Well we’ve dragged him literally to the other side of the world but he doesn’t seem to have inherited any of our wanderlust, we sometimes wonder if he was swapped at birth. Not even having us pointing out (nowadays) that the prospect of exotic holidays is a big draw for potential romantic partners is firing his enthusiasm for travel!
    I’m not bothered about rain but living in the North West we get more than our fair share of it so I prefer to avoid it on holiday if possible.
    Are you with your doctor friend on this trip? It’s also interesting to hear about women’s travel experiences as girls’ holidays might be back on the agenda as the nests start to empty!

    Cat

    OK, a few more recommendations for different places I stayed:

    Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui – firstly make sure you purchase bus tickets / shuttle services to PV de Sarapiqui, not PV de Talamanca! People muddle up the two places, and end up in the wrong one, more often than you’d think!

    I highly recommend booking a night or two at La Selva – the accommodation is better than you would think, and it’s an absolute bargain when you realise it includes 3 meals (including the best Aztec soup ever), the value of entrance to the reserve for 2 days (you’re free to wander on trails here alone) and a morning group guided hike (all for £73 on hotels.com). Also worth mentioning is just how amazing the staff were when my pride-and-joy camera stopped working, and I was absolutely beyond devastated. When someone suggested it might be down to the 100% humidity (they were right), the lovely canteen staff found a big plastic bag and filled it with rice for me – the bag of rice stayed with me for the rest of the trip, and I put my camera in it every night!

    I also highly recommend doing as many early morning river safaris (you’ll see lots, because animals need water, and you’ll see it better, because there’s a break in the canopy along the river, letting in more light!) and as many night walks (PVdS is the rainiest part of CR, so it’s just frog-tastic there!) as possible. Obviously I absolutely loved Yatama Ecolodge (https://www.headforpoints.com/2020/07/25/review-yatama-ecolodge-costa-rica/), and highly recommend staying there for a few nights, if you can cope! I also really liked Gran Gavilán del Sarapiquí Lodge – they have wonderful, hummingbird-attracting plants right by the breakfast tables.

    Cat

    La Fortuna – don’t miss the Mistico hanging bridges, they were amazing! There are some excellent options for zip-lining here, if you have adrenalin junkie tendencies. Also, you will want to spend some time in one of the many, many hot spring resorts in the area!

    I opted to stay in one of the many good cheap places in the area (Arenal Xilopalo – chosen for the bargain price, the great reviews, saying how helpful the staff are, and the incredible views of Arenal volcano from the restaurant/bar) for several nights, then I decided to stay at one of the hot springs hotels for one night. I chose Paradise Hot Springs Thermal Resort – I got early check in, late check out, a room upgrade and a bottle of wine with my Gold status on hotels.com. The resort was lovely, but I get the impression that the other hot springs are more extensive (as well as more expensive). It’s probably worth going to one of the more expensive resorts.

    The Savage Squirrel

    Thanks Cat. Loads of good advice here!

    memesweeper

    Punta Uva’s sleepier neighbour is just a little further down the coast (walkable) — Manzanillo. We stayed in Congo Bongo, and if you can put up with the fact it’s pretty basic, it’s damn near perfect. Uva has slightly better food choices I guess, and no shipwreck (!) on the beach. If you’re in the area don’t miss the Jaguar Rescue Center. They look after many more creatures than just jaguars.

    This coastline is one of my favourite places in the world and one of the very few I’ve voluntarily gone back to on holiday, albeit with a two-decade break between visits.

    Keely

    Thanks Cat , I’m busting looking at your suggestions as need to finalise my itinerary soon .

    Cat

    Montenegro / Santa Elena – the cloud forest is just magical. A thick mist seems to hang over it most days, and that thick mist drives an ecosystem that’s entirely different to other forests in CR, with over 70% of the plants being epiphytes, clinging to other plant matter, suspended in mid air. I highly, highly recommend getting a guide in Monteverde or Santa Elena reserve, so that the peculiarities of this fascinating ecosystem can be properly explained to you (and so that you’ll spot snakes hiding in the trees, and tadpoles in a puddle in a dimple in a tree stump!). My guide for Monteverde was David Jose, and he was amazing (not sure if you can request particular guides or not!). If you do the trail to the continental divide, about 20m before the viewpoints, there’s a fabulous tree with hummingbirds regularly stopping off for nectar, if, like me, you’re a little bit obsessed with them. Also Cafe Colibri is an excellent place to stop and wait for the bus, for the same reason (although they use feeders).

    This is another excellent area to go zip-lining, for those with adrenalin-junkie tendencies (I went with Selvatura, because it’s the park with the best views from the zip-lines – it actually goes over the cloud forest, and it has a 1km cable that you can go “Superman-style”, and a Tarzan swing, it was all ridiculously good fun!). There are many other zip-lining companies, mainly with longer or faster lines and higher Trazan swings, but less good views. It’s also an excellent spot to do a night tour, but I would give the ever-popular Santamaria’s a miss, and go on a guided night hike at Bosque Eterno de los Niños Bajo del Tigre. The former feels like you’re on a night-tour carousel, seeing the same 10 creatures as 100 other people in rotation. The latter feels more like you’re on an adventure, exploring the forest, which is how it should feel reaaly! Plus the Bosque Eterno de los Niños has an interesting history.

    I won’t recommend anywhere to stay here, as I went with an absolute bargain of a place, in order to justify splurging on Manuel Antonio and the Osa Peninsula. Suffice to say that $26 a night, including breakfast, got me a private room with bathroom, but not a very nice one! In terms of restaurants – the Treehouse restaurant is atmospheric, but dramatically overpriced, Bar Amigos was a much better bargain (they had wonderful Aztec soup too, which is my new favourite thing!), and I found a couple of decent sodas too.

    More later!

    Cat

    Punta Uva’s sleepier neighbour is just a little further down the coast (walkable) — Manzanillo. We stayed in Congo Bongo, and if you can put up with the fact it’s pretty basic, it’s damn near perfect. Uva has slightly better food choices I guess, and no shipwreck (!) on the beach. If you’re in the area don’t miss the Jaguar Rescue Center. They look after many more creatures than just jaguars.

    This coastline is one of my favourite places in the world and one of the very few I’ve voluntarily gone back to on holiday, albeit with a two-decade break between visits.

    It’s glorious, isn’t it? So very dramatic, wild and untamed! I suspect I’ll be back too!

    Cat

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16QNmjGk0cY for anyone who wants to see, but I recommend fast-forwarding to 45 seconds in (I probably should have edited out the first bit!).

    memesweeper

    @cat nice work with the go-pro there 😀 I did a handful of zip lines in the cloud forest (another repeat visit incidentally) but they weren’t my thing and left the remainder to the little sweepers. There are rope bridges for the less adventurous.

    Cat

    @cat nice work with the go-pro there 😀 I did a handful of zip lines in the cloud forest (another repeat visit incidentally) but they weren’t my thing and left the remainder to the little sweepers. There are rope bridges for the less adventurous.

    Yes, the hanging bridges are marvellous. Most of the adventure parks often also have butterfly gardens, hummingbird gardens or a ranarium, for those of a more nervous disposition!

    Cat

    Manuel Antonio – there is a reason that this place is so very popular. This very small NP gets so many visitors because there’s an absurd array of wildlife, which is easy to spot, and once you’ve walked a few km and got some lovely photos, there’s a couple of world-class stretches of sand to laze on, by gloriously blue water.

    You won’t have it to yourself though!

    Entrance to the NP is about £15 per day, book a time slot to enter the park in advance, otherwise you might have to wait until 10am one day (I was rather impatient!). I recommend getting a guide or joining a group guided hike for the first day at least. The cost of my guided trip was halved by booking with the guide direct, rather than booking through my hotel.

    I stayed for 4 nights in the Falls Resort Manuel Antonio, which was lovely. I’m a sucker for the luxury of a lovely pool at the end of the day, and this pool was delightful. I also had the most wonderfully comfy hammock, and it came with various Gold exclusives on hotels.com. Highly recommended. There’s a bus that goes from the main road to the NP entrance regularly. Nearby Agua Azul is a lovely place for dinner.

    masaccio

    I was looking at Costa Rica too. One problem I had was finding a decent beach with a great resort where I could dive and the OH could chill while I made bubbles. Best I came up with was Playa Potrero where there’s an Audley-recommended hotel called Bahia del Sol, and a local-ish dive shop does beach pickups for the Bats and Cats. Anyone got a better beach recommendation?

    Cat

    The last area I stayed in was the Osa peninsula.

    I highly recommend spending a few nights in Drake Bay (although I didn’t visit Puerto Jimenez, so I can’t compare the two), and unless you get seasick (it is pretty rough), I recommend taking the boat route from Sierpe, through the mangrove forests and out to sea. One bit of advice – this is a speedboat, so you will not be taking lovely photos of birds in the mangroves, and the waves get unbelievably rough as you go from river to ocean, so leave your camera in your bag, ideally packed away inside a dry bag!

    There are many, many ecolodges just outside Drake Bay, bordering the Corcovado that are worth looking into. Some of them offer full board deals and two wildlife walks a day. I imagine they’re incredible. They are very expensive though, so I settled for two lovely nights in a room with my own private pool with incredible, sweeping views over Drake Bay, in Sunset Lodge. As it was a bit of a walk uphill, the rather lovely pool also had amazing views over several trees, where every morning green parrots (I’m not sure if they were mealy parrots or the red-lored Amazon), toucans, aracaris and spider monkeys would hang around, while scarlet macaws flew overhead. I spent 2 very happy days taking photos of the abundant wildlife that just came to me, while I lazed in my own pool. It was marvellous!

    I then spent 4 nights at my favourite bargainous cheapie of the trip (to justify the two nights in Sirena station that followed) – Life for Life Hostel. This is actually a turtle project funded by the hostel, and various volunteers and wildlife enthusiasts that stay here. They dig up and protect turtle eggs in a hatchery before releasing them again (the reason this is necessary is that turtle eggs buried in the sand rarely survive until hatching, due to dogs, other predators, and even humans digging them up and eating them). Anyway, I paid $35/night to sleep in a hammock with mosquito net (I still got eaten alive by mossies and sandflies!), including 2 meals a day. The food was plentiful and the atmosphere was fun, but what I really liked were the stunning beaches with really not very many people (which is quite difficult to find in CR!). The sunsets were truly unbelievable, and one night we were treated to bioluminescence in the sea, swirling around our feet (apparently this is commonly seen in Puerto Jimenez). Anyway, I loved it, but it’s not definitely not the place for everyone! It’s about halfway between Drake Bay and Sirena ranger station. You can walk there from Drake Bay, if you like hiking, you can get the boat from Drake Bay, or you can pay $30 for someone to drive you over on a quad bike, if you like an adventure!

    There were many trips available in both Drake Bay and at Life for Life, including tubing/messing about under waterfalls on the Rio Claro (the guy who ran this trip was sadly away when I visited), snorkelling off Cano island (I’d just recovered from yet another ear infection, making snorkelling ill-advised – bloody swimmers’ ear!) and whale and dolphin watching (I was running out of money at this point, and this trip was expensive, sadly!). I just contented myself with enjoying my pool and views in Drake Bay, and the glorious beaches around San Josecito

    My final stop before returning home was Corcovado NP itself, staying in open-air dormitory style accommodation at Sirena ranger station. This is not cheap, as you’re not allowed into the NP without a guide, and paying for a guide overnight gets expensive, but it is, without a doubt, the best place to see wildlife in CR, and as day trips don’t arrive until about 8am, you miss what for most animals is the most active time of day if you just visit for the day. While the lovely ecolodges outside Drake Bay that border the NP are supposed to be amazing, they really are no substitute for staying in the park itself. Anyway, as I said, this is not cheap ($550 for 2 nights including plentiful food), and the fact you’re staying in a dorm, and the only thing separating you from the jungle is a mosquito net (make sure you tuck it in thoroughly – people who didn’t shared their bed with cicadas, as well as mossies!) is really not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it was well worth it. Over the course of 3 days we had multiple sightings of all 4 types of monkey that you can find in CR (howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins, Godfrey’s spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys), we had 4 Baird’s tapir sightings (including one marvellous display of symbiosis, as a crested caracara bird hopped on the back of a heavily pregnant tapir lazing on the beach, and enjoyed an all-you-can-eat feast of the fleas on her back), we saw an anteater, two fer de lance snakes (don’t turn your back on them, they jump…) peccary families, coatis and sloths, as well as various anoles, hawks, falcons, motmots, herons, hummingbirds, tanagers, owls, ibis, woodpeckers and trogons, and last but definitely not least, we saw a puma on day 3, about 30 minutes before we got on the boat back to Drake Bay.

    It was *amazing*!

    Cat

    I was looking at Costa Rica too. One problem I had was finding a decent beach with a great resort where I could dive and the OH could chill while I made bubbles. Best I came up with was Playa Potrero where there’s an Audley-recommended hotel called Bahia del Sol, and a local-ish dive shop does beach pickups for the Bats and Cats. Anyone got a better beach recommendation?

    I’d recommend Amayas de Osa, or Copa de Arbol, both of which look nice, but are walking distance to San Josecito beach, and also Rincon beach (both are lovely, and uncrowded). You would be able to dive at Cano island, which is supposed to be amazing.

    Cat

    I just thought I’d post about getting around Costa Rica too.

    While private transfers and taxis are available readily between destinations, they are likely to be much more expensive than you’d expect. At the other end of the scale, local buses are cheap, but rarely ply the routes tourists want to take, often necessitating a change of buses along the way. For me, the best option was usually taking tourist shuttle buses from A to B, with one of the bonuses being that they pick up and drop off from your hotel (less of a bonus if you’re the first one picked up, or the last one dropped off along the route!).

    To give you an idea of the costs, and companies out there, this is the route I took:

    San Jose to Cahuita – public bus from MEPE bus station, about £6 ish (if memory serves). The views are stunning on this route, BTW. Take a seat on the LHS of the bus, if possible.

    Cahuita to Playa Chiquita – public bus, around £5 ish (again, based on memory)

    Playa Chiquita to La Selva in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui – Interbus shuttle booked through the Transportation in Costa Rica website, $64

    Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui to La Fortuna – public bus to Ciudad Quesada, where I changed buses on to La Fortuna. This was the cheaper option, but turned a 1 hour £60 trip into a 4 hour stressy, sweaty unpleasant experience (I couldn’t book onward tickets until I got to CQ, and then couldn’t find the ticket office in a crowded bus station – as it turns out, there wasn’t one). In the end, this, and my 30kg of rucksack, convinced me to take shuttles where possible from that point onwards.

    La Fortuna to Santa Elena/Monteverde – $25 on the taxi – boat – taxi route (by far the easiest option, and you get to enjoy the views of volcan Arenal from the lake of the same name). Readily bookable through your hotel or a local travel agent, a couple of days in advance. I took the afternoon service, in order to enjoy the hot springs at my hotel and my late check out for longer!

    Santa Elena to Manuel Antonio – $50, I think, booked through my guesthouse in Santa Elena

    Manuel Antonio to Drake Bay – $47 shuttle service to Sierpe dock, booked with Easy Ride Costa Rica, followed by the morning boat to Drake Bay ($15, I think), where I was picked up from the boat by the nice people at Sunset Lodge. Don’t take the boat unless you can cope with a rough ride!

    I then largely got around the Osa peninsula by boat or ATV. I returned to San Jose on a flight (Sansa airlines), as I wanted to maximise time on the Osa peninsula.

    Let me know if you have questions!

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