2011 March – Costa Rica
We flew from Houston into San Jose, Costa Rica which is the capital. The flying time was about 9 hours – we had a layover at Mexico City, Mexico.
Costa Rica has two seasons – wet and dry. We went there in March which is almost the end of the wet season – yes, there were some mini-wet days, but for the most part we were spared the incessant rains of the region. Additionally, we were able to catch the lush greenery everywhere because the rains had just ended.

Our trip was arranged by a custom package tour company called “Pacific Trade Winds” who did an absolutely wonderful job in arranging the trip for us and taking care of every need. Quite a few meals were paid for, there was a vehicle available to take us to our next destination and they were extremely flexible and understanding in planning the trip destinations and stays with us. The vehicle drivers were all very friendly, professional English speaking drivers that knew about the area very well and stopped at various spots so we could see the abundance of wild-life! (Wait!!! Did you plant that two-toed sloth up in the tree? How could you spot it while driving at 60 miles an hour?) ☺
Of course, this being our family trip, as always, we made the best of the 7 days that we had there and drove from coast-to-coast, North-to-South – to cover everything that we possibly could.

Day 1 – To the Caribbean Coast:

San Jose, where we spent the previous night – was nothing much to boast about. At least the area that we stayed in was like any other city in the middle of downtown. We had walked around a bit the night before but aiinh!! Not much to do there. The drive from there to Cauhita on the Caribbean coast is something else though. It took us about 5 1/2 hours to get there… mostly because the roads are unlike the US, but all that was expected. We made plenty stops on the way too trying to soak in all the scenery and taking loads of pictures. There are several local food places on the way where you can stop by and indulge in authentic local cuisine or just your regular noodles, sandwiches etc.

Cauhita is a small town bang on the Caribbean Coast. The hotel that we stayed in was just across the street from the beach and felt like a true tropical resort with its wood cottages, hammocks in the front yard, LUSH green trees and tropical plants with humongous leaves, multicolored gigantic flowers and all kinds of butterflies swarming on them. The main town with several eating joints is about a 20-minute walk from there – don’t forget to try the seafood there since there is so much variety available.

Day 2 – Snorkeling in the Caribbean:

There are several tours available in town – we went with one of the tour guides who had approached us while we had dinner the night before. It was a very personalized trip for the 2 families that our group comprised of. The boat picked us up from the town and we rode about an hour into the snorkeling spot. Guides were available for the kids – there was plenty of sea-life to be awed at there and we spent a good 2-3 hours snorkeling in the world-famous Caribbean blue waters there. Lunch was a variety of fresh fruits – healthy and totally filling!!

Post lunch, we went on a short guided hike into the rainforest – and saw several animals and birds and plants including some rare poisonous frogs. A great trip with a wonderful set of tour guides.

Day 3 – To Arenal:

One day of relaxing was more than enough for us – YUP, that’s the way our trips go! Early next morning we began our drive to Arenal Volcano area. It took us about 6 hours to get there because it is in the middle of the country – right in the middle of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The whole trip was laden with beautiful sceneries comprising of mountains, rivers and valleys. In fact, we stopped at a point about half-way through where we could look down into a river that was FULL of crocodiles – some with their mouth WIDE open hoping for one of us to lose our balance!

The Arenal Resort is very beautiful and all cottages offer a view of the volcano. Even though it was a cloudy day, we could see the smoke emanating out of the Arenal tip. However, in as much as it is touted as an active volcano – it really wasn’t. Sure there were smoke plumes, but no lava or rumbling as the pictures and the tour guides had led us to believe. Still a worthy sight!

Day 4 – Arenal Volcano / Canyoning / Hot Springs:

We spent the morning taking a tour on the “other side” of the volcano which was completely overloaded with Howler Monkeys. It was an awesome sight as they swung from tree to tree howling away. The driver then took us for our long-awaited Canyoning trip. This is nothing but a combination of Rappelling and hiking through the forest. I make it sound simple but this was easily the most awesome part of our trip – we were taken to a camp where trained guides then escorted us down 7 waterfalls – we rappelled down through the waterfalls (small kids were escorted by the guides) and hiked from the base of one waterfall to the top of the next one. The jungle can get dicey though but very safe for the most part, although we did run into a fer-de-lance blocking our way on the hike down (considered the most poisonous snake in Costa Rica).

From there we were driven to the Baldi Hot Springs where we spent the evening in the springs area – swimming, sliding – just having a great time in the hot spring waters. The dinner buffet that is served there is super-expensive so we decided to eat out after we were done there.

My cousin and I decided to walk it from the springs to the hotel (the wives and kids took the vehicle) – NOT RECOMMENDED! Half way through, because of the sheer incline of the road, tiredness after the hot water springs, it being dark, no shoulder on the road etc – we decided to abandon our quest for walking and hailed a taxi! Rest of the evening was spent in the resort swimming pool which was almost as good as the hot water springs itself!

Day 5 – Back on the Road – off to Monteverde:

Monteverde is a cloud forest – a level higher than the rain forests. Apparently it is supposed to be nested in the clouds throughout the year. The much-touted Land-Boat-Land drive was an experience to say the least. While the first leg of the land drive was quite normal, the last leg on land was extremely rocky. A bulk of that drive is on unpaved roads and made quite a rocky ride. However, we did not let than dampen our spirits – we used that drive to stop at multiple places and took loads of pictures of grazing goats and sheep, of full rainbows. The water part of the tour was about an hour long as we crossed the Arenal Lake in a speed boat. It had beautiful scenery all around but the day was gloomy because of overhanging clouds and rain.
However, once we reached Monteverde – it was a different world altogether. The resort that we stayed in was actually nested in the clouds with cute cottages in a jungle so thick that even though it was only 4 PM we could hardly see the sun through the trees. In retrospect, I wish we had spent more days there just chilling out.

Day 6 – Zip-lining in Monteverde:

We took the vehicle early morning to be dropped off at the Zip-lining place just 45 minutes from Monteverde. This is one of the very famous activities in Costa Rica and involves being hooked on a zip-line and then flying anywhere between 300-1200 meters over humongous green forests. Absolutely thrilling! It is perfectly safe for the little kids too since a guide usually hangs with them.

However, we faced a couple of minor problems here…

  • The hike to the starting point of the zip-lines can be a little intense for the little kids as it could be up to 30 minutes long with some very steep climbs
  • If you are scared of flying that high, you may have a tendency of holding on to hook on the wire which could slow you down considerably! This could result in getting stuck on the cable a few feet short of the end – nothing to panic… the guides usually climb up the cable and drag you down, it just takes them some work and it’s, well, embarrassing!

In the evening we were back on the road, now to Manuel Antonio.

Day 7 – Manuel Antonio

Manuel Antonio is famous for its beaches that sit right next to the forests. This is what makes them totally unique. You could lay on the beach and utilize the shade of the thickly leaved trees while being just 20 ft from the water! We had taken a bus to the Manuel Antonio National forest from our hotel that was in the middle of the city. (There is plenty to do in the city too – quite advanced). The forest has tons of wildlife – you really don’t need a guided tour as long as you are willing to stroll at ease, and be on the lookout for animals. Also, wherever you see a congregation of tourists, chances are they have chanced upon some exotic species. Howler Monkeys, Capuchin Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Sloths and other exotic animals are aplenty.

Plenty of nice restaurants in the area to eat after your day on the beach. Early next morning we took the drive to San Jose and then the flight out of there back home!

We had more than a week in Costa Rica and covered coast to coast. People come there to relax and then people, like us, come there to see whatever they can in the time possible. There is no doubt – it is a beautiful country, very safe, reasonably priced and politically stable. Spanish is widely spoken there but English is almost as prevalent.
There are quite a few things that we missed despite our super-hectic schedule … Tortuguero National Park, Guanacaste National Park – each with a beauty and uniqueness of its own.

5 Favorite things about Costa Rica:

  1. The activities – Canyoning/Rappelling! Absolutely recommended.
  2. The activities – Zip-lining! You can do it in other parts of the world too (even in Austin), but nothing like flying over those green jungles
  3. The activities – Snorkeling! Abundant sea life there
  4. The beaches on Manuel Antonio
  5. The turtle season – unfortunately this is another thing we missed out on because of our timing. (The turtles are present there from November to February)

Some Don’ts or recommendations:

  1. Arenal Volcano is beautiful no doubt but it is not “active” as we would think an active volcano to be. Even though the pictures show lava, be prepared for minor plumes of smoke coming out every now and then.
  2. Even though Baldi Hot Springs are excellent for families and kids (they have multiple slides) – we heard that Tabacon Spring Report was much cleaner and more up-class. It’s, obviously, a little more expensive though.
  3. Read my detailed note above about the zip-lining do’s and don’ts.

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