Costa Rica

2015-12-05
Thanksgiving in USA is a wonderful opportunity to go on vacation. For once, we don't feel obliged to visit our family, as they don't celebrate it but we still get 2 days off for free. After some research, we decided for Costa Rica that got rave reviews from our friends who visited it. Back when Stanko was very little, we continued with the road-trip style, heavy-on-hiking vacations, as he was relatively easy to carry, and napped a lot in the carrier. Now that he's approaching five, and we have another one, that's no longer an option, hence I planned it to be a bit more "settled". We still wanted to avoid all-inclusive resorts that besides being unnecessarily expensive, would rip us off the opportunity to explore this wonderful country.

A few remarks on the budget:
The flight tickets weren't exactly cheap - $2400 total for all four of us, the largest item in our budget. At least they were direct - Newark to San José, and the flight takes around 5.5 hours, manageable compared to flying to Europe. Another option is flying to Liberia but there don't seem to be any direct flights from NYC, and with two kids, I strongly prefer 5 straight hours over 8+ hours with Spirit airlines, with a stopover. In Costa Rica, priced for American tourists at least in tourist locations, we paid ~$110-120/night. That's not too cheap even by American standards but on the other hand, we stayed in really nice places with many amenities (normal price on booking is about ~$80/night for a standard 2-3* quadruple room), yet not the ridiculously overpriced ones - looking at you, Tabacón ($250-$300/night). Backpackers have it much cheaper - a bed in a hostel costs about $10/night. Late November is a great time to travel if you want to save some money, as it's the very end of the rain season, hence the prices are still low but the weather tends to get better. That being sad - originally, I was truly impressed by the booking.com listings that offered great volcano views. Given that we haven't seen the peak even once, I think it's smarter to pay for wellness, at least in November (and if the sky clears up after all, Fortuna is mere steps from the volcano, so you can just step outside the door). Also, the road to the park is bad - as is the case with many public attractions. If you think you'll drive it a few times a day (to visit the town or other parks in the area), it is probably better to just stay in the town.

I tried not to overplan things this time, so the loose plan was to stay about 3 days in the Arenal Volcano National Park area, and 2 days at the Pacific coast, in the beach town of Sámara. We rented the car at the airport, costing us $500/week which was about $150 more than we expected (we found out they included some kinds of insurance that we did not want). Gas is about 50% more expensive than in USA ($4.50/gallon). Actually, nothing in the tourist locations is cheaper than in regular shops/restaurants in USA, save the local fruit (e.g. $2 for a bag of 10+ oranges). The official currency is colon (~500c/$1). The exchange at the airport is a rip-off but that's what we expected. We still got some local money there, not knowing how much time would be lost while searching for an ATM. As it turned out, even fruit/veggie stalls on the roadside take dollars and give you a better rate.

On the first day, we planned to drive from San José to Luna Nueva lodge near La Fortuna (Arenal area). Renting the car took forever (perhaps normal in Latin America), hence we took off in the afternoon. The road was quite narrow (one lane in each direction and no shoulders) but alright, and the rolling hills with cows scattered over them offered a bucolic scenery. However, Stanko's stomach, despite of doses of dramamine, didn't handle them very well, and we stopped a few times for him to puke. Then suddenly, we saw the sign telling that the road is closed (no further explanation). We took a painful detour (with another road closure on the way), and finally reached our destination after it got dark outside - which admittedly, happens very soon - through the year, the daylight is about 12 hours/day, 5am-5pm. Luna Nueva is a "bio-dynamic" farm, whatever it means, and as expected from a farm with such an attribute, is owned by Americans. We rented a very spacious family bungalow ($120/night) but single/double rooms are also available. The farm is about 20km from the main tourist center La Fortuna but we were hooked by its informal and extremely family friendly vibe. Besides a handful of interns, and two other families with young kids, with whom we had rather complementary schedule, there was almost no one. We had the pool and the jacuzzi for ourselves (I did not know that Stanko is such a water beast), the breakfast was delicious, not to mention educational tours (and a hike) that the farm offers.
ide sa vysypať DSC_8440 awake and happy cocoa fruit among the giant bamboo trees family portrait na priedomí
La Fortuna and the area of Arenal volcano are very disneyland-ish, which probably applies to more tourist locations in Costa Rica. I think the logic is like - the more glitz, the more tourists, and they're probably right. I don't particularly care about bungee-jumping and "canopy tours" (ziplining over the rainforest), on the other hand, it's probably the reason for the very high concentration of English-speaking locals (besides foreign expats). This time we took it a bit more leisurely, and only did small hikes/walks (up to ~4km) where we didn't need to spend a half of the time convincing Stanko to move forward. These included - Mistico hanging bridges park, the trail around our farm, and a hike to old lava beds in Arenal National Park. The last one was pretty rainy but Stanko did fantastic - partly thanks to Michal patiently entertaining him the whole time. Costa Ricans monetize everything what can be monetized (park entrances around $10-15/person) but kids under 6 are free pretty much everywhere.
look, a monkey Mistico hanging bridges against the sun (but Stanko wanted this one) from a rainy hike

Arenal from the lava fields on a mostly rainy hike. Goodbye Arenal.

A photo posted by Miroslava Sotakova (@gwhitehawk) on

Coffee grinder, La Choza de Laurel, La Fortuna

A photo posted by Miroslava Sotakova (@gwhitehawk) on

We were recommended to visit Tabacón spa by many people, and even though we were first hesitant ($60/adult), at the end decided to give it a try. It turned out that they have a deal for the low season (mentioned nowhere online) - two entrances for the price of one. Spending two evenings in the warm volcanic river with picturesquely manicured banks really didn't hurt (you can bath in the same river for free a few meters further downstream - however, the banks are natural, and there is no artificial light, which means it's dark at 5). They probably still made a lot of money of the tourists using a "free" pass, as everything (food and else) is ridiculously overpriced ($39/dinner buffet, what a deal).
the exhibit of blue swimsuits flying night flight

Time for drinks

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On the way to the Pacific coast, we stopped for a late lunch in Nuevo Arenal - a town at lake Arenal. The "Bambu" pizzeria we chose based on recommendations seemed to be a regular meeting point of the diverse expat community (USA, Canada, Europe). The single-guy service was painfully slow hence we had some time to talk, and it looked like most of them are retired, and moved to Costa Rica for a variety of reasons (cheaper properties, cheaper healthcare, lower taxes, stuck in the hippie era). They were quite worried about our intention to reach Sámara that day. As it turned out, "Carretera Interamericana" really resembles a road connecting some insignificant towns - again, a single lane in each direction, so if you get stuck behind a tractor at a double-yellow-line section, then good luck and goodbye. The three-digit number roads were barely illuminated at night (that is, after 5pm), and the worst of all - often pure and badly maintained gravel (that Google navigation did not seem to be aware of, and continued to recommend terrible shortcuts - at one occasion, we almost ended up in the river).

Finally, we reached Sámara about 90 minutes later than Google predicted (due to "shortcuts" and Stanko puking), to be welcomed by a Swedish couple working for an American owner at Las Ranas lodge. Really, Costa Rica at times seemed like the West outsourced to the land of eternal summer. The lodge is far from the beach (about 2km) but due to the elevated location, has a great ocean view. Stanko had great fun in the pool, hence we only set off for the town visit around noon. Like an expat from Vancouver in Nuevo Arenal put it, "it's hot as shit down there", meaning the Pacific coast. I was badly longing for the gentler mountain air which wasn't helped by Stanko insisting that we eat a lobster, for which we chose the first place offering it - besides a very slow service, they had almost nothing fresh, and fish-and-chips is a staple there. Walking through the town later, it really seemed ironic to pick such a place in a town full of artisanal cafes and organic smoothie bars. The beach was cooler, fantastic, and besides our British lodge neighbors, seemed to be occupied entirely by Germans.
Las Ranas lodge riding a crocodile užíva si vlny klap klap the soft light of setting sun stavebné práce ... and sunset the cliché
The last stop on the trip was meant to be high-altitude cloud forest in Monteverde - it seemed like a major attraction midway between Sámara and San José (before realizing what the extra 50km really mean). The road to and from there was the worst of all. A turn directly from "Carretera Interamericana", then 30km of steep winding roads, around 20km of which is gravel. At the end, it's quite hard to navigate to the cloud forest preserve which we came for, as the road there is unremarkably terrible (in fact, sometimes there's a great asphalt road leading to a hotel, while the terrible one continues to a public attraction), and at every orientation point, one had to spot the right sign in a collage of directions pointing to, for instance: coffee processing tours, bungee jumping, canopy/ziplining, treehouse hotel, Whole Foods market. Some of the private agencies even hijacked the typical italic "i" for information - following that you could have ended up in the bungee jumping center.
The forest itself delivered though - the veil of fog gave it a mystery feel, and the air was fantastic (the forest is in about 1500-1800 m above the sea level). However, I do have a bit regret that we missed the coffee growing and processing tour due to the lack of time. Not to mention Talamanca mountains in the south (3800m+ high), and the Caribbean coast with the jungle rich on sloths (everywhere else, besides a variety of birds, we mostly saw coatis). Hope to come back one day, perhaps when the kids are a bit older.
the road to Monteverde paprade tu rastú ako stromy chutné listy contemplating the magic light of cloudforest when the sun shines through the fog next to a huge tree give me a smile, please another look towards Pacific
What a would be doing differently the second time:
1. Luna Nueva was great but I'd probably stay closer to La Fortuna - given that Stanko stomach handles bumpy roads really badly. Casa Luna hotel inside the park also looks very good (though I think they didn't have vacancy for the time we needed).
2. I wouldn't bother with listings offering Arenal volcano views or the hot springs as their main selling point (we spent one night in the middle in Manoa hot springs resort) - it's easy to get both almost anywhere nearby (for the views depends on the weather).
3. Las Ranas lodge was perfect for just two days with little kids having a blast in the pool and watching iguanas - but it's far from the town and not sure what makes it a 4* hotel (even though the difference about $30/night isn't that killing). If we came for a few more days, I'd rather find something in the town.
4. San José has a magnificent location in the mountains, and is surrounded by peaks up to 3500m high. I'd allow ourselves to spend more time in the area.
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