Welcome to the Caballitos del Mar blog.

This site is intended to provide more information for our guests who are staying at our homes in Dominical, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, or for anyone traveling to that area. Please feel free to visit our vrbo.com listing. Caballitos del Mar consists of three homes one km south of Dominical, owned by the Bernardi and Hawley families. Our property manager is Neil Harding, who is a wonderful resource when planning a trip to the South Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. We hope you enjoy the site.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Homes of Caballitos del Mar

In the jungle, but right on the beach...
The homes are located about 1km south of Dominical, Puntarenas, Costa Rica between the Costanera Sur (Southern Coast Highway) and the ocean. We were fortunate to find property in the Maritime Zone, which allows us to build close to the ocean, but with restrictions to protect the spectacular Costa Rican environment. There are three homes, owned by two close families, that are virtually identical. This makes Caballitos del Mar ideal for multiple families that want to vacation together, yet have separate accommodations.

Great kayaking in the mangroves 15 minutes away
Dominical is a popular small town that appeals to visitors interested in surfing, eco-tourism, or the excellent Spanish language school, Adventure Education Center, or AEC. The town is not built-up like some of the coastal cities to the north, and has fewer than 1,000 residents. It has the feeling of Kauai or some of the South Pacific island chains, with a laid-back tempo and friendly people.

The town's location makes it convenient for many south coast destinations, including Manuel Antonio National Park, Quepos, the Corcovado Peninsula, Uvita, and a large number of secluded beaches and surf spots.

Driving time from Juan Santamaria Airport or San Jose is about 3 hours by way of the coast, and four hours by way of the mountains. We've driven both routes countless times, and while we prefer the coast route, we recommend that you experience the mountain route at least once to see a different aspect of the country.

The Homes
On the beach, but secluded. View from the terrace.
The homes are all three bedroom and either three or four bathroom, two story, and approximately 2,200 sq.ft. (200 m^2) living space. Each home has a pool, laundry facilities, a full kitchen, and lots of ceiling fans to keep the air moving. The bedrooms are air-conditioned, although it's not necessary for most of the year. See these VRBO links: Villa 1, Villa 2, and Villa 3

The homes face the ocean and it's a short walk to the semi-private beach. Dominical is a 20 minute walk by the beach (low to medium tide), where you can find restaurants, a beach with lifeguards, groceries, surf schools, and the language school.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Getting to Caballitos del Mar

From the United States
While there has been the promise of a “southern” airport for more than a decade, your only choice is Juan Santamaria Airport in Alajuela, a city near San Jose. The airport code is SJO. Your airline choices are American, United, Continental, Frontier, Taca, Alaska, Southwest and a few others. We generally fly American via Dallas or Miami. From the West Coast, it takes about 7 hours in the air, regardless of which route you take. Gateway cities, depending on the airline, include Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and Miami.
Many flights end up departing from the US around 5:00pm, and arrive around 8:30pm, in Costa Rica. Incidentally, Costa Rica is in the Central time zone and does not change for daylight savings time, so it is permanently UTC -6 hours. While it’s possible to drive to Dominical after renting a car at night, we don’t recommend it because the roads are not well marked in many cases, and it can be difficult to find your way. (Relatively new construction of Highway 27 and the wonderful improvements to Highway 34 have mitigated this warning somewhat, but perhaps wait until you're second trip to drive at night from the airport.) We recommend, instead, to stay near the airport overnight and get an early start the next day. Alternatively, you can take an early flight from Miami or Dallas, and arrive in Costa Rica before noon. Or take the redeye options from Los Angeles which arrive at 6:00am or so in SJO.

Alaska Airlines now serves San Jose (and Liberia) with a single flight per day out of LA. Interestingly, this takes off around 9:00am, and lands mid-afternoon, then returns an hour later. Prices were about $400 r/t in the "green season". 
If staying near the airport, consider the Marriott (extremely nice, about $200 per room per night) or the Studio Hotel in Santa Ana ($90, and a tremendous deal).

Renting a Car
All major agencies are represented in the area surrounding the airport. We’ve had good luck with Toyota Rent-a-Car, which is very close to the airport and offers competitive rates on Rav4s and Prados (like a Land Cruiser in the US). We don’t recommend the compact SUVs due to poor crashworthiness, terrible performance, small cramped cabins, and the noise.
Arrange to be picked up when you make your reservation. As you exit the airport, you’ll be enveloped in a sea of men who offer taxis, other transportation, and all sorts of help. While a little intimidating, we’ve found them to be extremely helpful in contacting the rental car agency or just solving problems. 500-1000 colones (one to two dollars) is a good value for their services. Our experience is that they are there to serve your needs, not rip you off.
This route is relatively new, and there have been reports of road closures after heavy rains. When driving in Costa Rica, always try to anticipate a city in the direction of travel so that you’re prepared for junctions. Drivers are generally courteous, but may not yield to faster moving traffic by staying to the right. It’s common for the right lane to merge left, and you do not have any rights when this happens (Ceda El Paso). Merge early and carefully.
Take CA (Central America) 1 to the west about 4km. This requires that you leave the airport, exit to the right, then merge with westward traffic from the left. 
Exit at Radial El Coyol. Cross over highway on overpass. Take second exit at roundabout to continue on main road. This will go through several other roundabouts, and will eventually give you an option of Costa Rica Highway 27. 
CR 27 is a toll road and will cost about 1500 Colones total, at three toll booths. There are very few navigational choices to make, but you want to go in the direction of Orotina, Caldera, and Puntarenas. The road is frequently being repaired, so look out for slower traffic and temporary lane adjustments.
About 6km beyond Orotina, and immediately after the third toll booth, exit right following the signs to Jaco. You’ll be on this road for 90 minutes. The roadside restaurants are cheap and convenient. Continue past Jaco to Parrita, Quepos, and Dominical. 
At Dominical, you’ll pass over a large concrete bridge. Continue south for about 1.5km, past the Caldwell Banker office, the Resaurant Carreta, and the Restaurant Roca Verde. Our driveway is about 200 yds beyond Roca Verde on the right. It is marked by two reflective posts on either side of the driveway, and a red/white/blue utility pole that is visible during the day. You should be able to see the houses beyond the driveway. The driveway is steep and a sharp right hand turn, so put on your blinkers and take your time. At the bottom of the hill, turn into the driveway to the left or have the security guard open it for you. Each home has off-road parking so that no one is blocked in. This link should give you a good route using Google Maps.
This route is longer, but it travels over a high mountain pass which allows you to see the ecological diversity of the country. You’re above 9,000 feet for about an hour. Not for the faint of heart; there is truck and bus traffic which can be intimidating, along with slow vehicles and few safe places to pass. Take your time and get there safely. If it's foggy or rainy, really slow down!
Take CA 1 towards San Jose for about 12.5km.
Take the off ramp to CR 39, “Escazu” and “Hatillo”.
Stay on CR 39 for 10.5km. At the fifth traffic circle in Zapote, take highway 215 on right.
Travel in the direction of Cartago and Tres Rios. Highway 215 becomes CA 2 (Central America Route 2). This is also known as Carretera Interamericana.
Stay to the right through two junctions and continue to San Isidro de General on CA 2.
After 90 minutes, you’ll descend out of the mountains into San Isidro de General. Look for Route 243 to Dominical on the right.
Continue on Route 243 for 30km. Turn left on Route 34. You’ll cross a concrete bridge and be in Dominical. Here's a map from Google Maps.
Getting Back
Many flights depart at 9:00am and 11:00am. While the 9:00am flight seems like it would be too early, you can leave Dominical around 4:00am, drive up the coast and get to the rental car agencies around 7:00am, and still have time to spare at the airport. The sunrise is beautiful as you drive up the coast, and there is little traffic. You’ll encounter some rush hour traffic as you get close to San Jose. We still think it’s the best option, and we’ve never missed a flight.
You can get gas before returning your car right off the highway leading to the airport. As you drive north, you’ll pass the Firestone factory on the left. Take the next exit and turn left as you get to the surface streets. There will be a gas station immediately on your left. It’s equally easy to get back on the highway.
The airport tax is around $28.00, and can be paid in American dollars. Pay the airport tax before getting in line at the airline counters. American Airlines now (2016) includes the airport tax in their ticket price, which is a big convenience. Other airlines may have followed suit; the lines at the "tax counter" were dramatically shorter than in previous years. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Renting a Car in Costa Rica

I think it is safe to say that driving in a country in which you do not reside (I am trying desperately to not say "a foreign country") is intimidating the first time, and possibly every time you do so. There are so many aspects that conspire to make your hands sweat, your heart race, and convince you to take a car with a driver next time around. We have rented cards in half a dozen countries, and we don't pretend to be experts, but we do have some advice on renting and driving in Costa Rica.

First, virtually all American car rental companies are represented at the airport. Yes, there are a few that you haven't seen in the U.S., but the normal Budget, Avis, Hertz, National, and so forth are there, So, if you have had good experience with any of those companies, you might feel comfortable continuing to use them.

Second, there are smaller companies that we have had good experience with. One is Toyotarent, which as the name implies, primarily rents Toyotas. We recommend that you use a travel shopping web site like Kayak or Expedia to find the right combination of price and vehicle.

Third, we think it makes sense to rent medium sized SUVs for most uses. We like the Toyota Rav4, but other models would also work. Relatively good on gas, rugged for the bad roads, and more likely to be survivable if the yogurt hits the fan. Many. many roads in Costa Rica are dirt and gravel, which turns into mud in the rainy season, and therefore a 4WD vehicle is required to give you access to some neat places.

Comparing prices can be difficult because of insurance costs. There is the mandatory insurance (liability) and then the extra insurance (collision, comprehensive). We've never quite figured out the right answer, but some credit cards (AmEx) will cover one or more of these insurance costs if you charge the rental on your card. While all the prices seem cheap initially, we find that it ends up costing $50-$90 per day after insurance, taxes, etc.

Fourth, our place is about 150km away, so buying the notorious fuel option can be a good idea. Fuel is expensive, so you don't want to return the car with half a tank. On a recent trip, we were upgraded to a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado (large, but relatively simple SUV with a diesel engine. We opted for the pre-paid fuel and drove our entire five day trip on a single tank of fuel. There was 1/8 tank left when we returned to the airport. Your mileage may vary. We generally fly out early in the morning, so we leave the car at the airport (by prior arrangement). So, not having to get gas is a big plus.

Driving customs:

Hey, it's pretty much like the U.S. but there are a few differences. We have seen few examples of aggressive driving, as in road rage or purposefully dangerous driving, but we do see a lot of drivers taking chances. This shows up as passing cars and trucks in low-visibility locations, or taking corners too fast and too close to the center line, and so forth. This boils down to the old Driver's Training admonition: Drive Defensively. Assume that the other driver is going to take his half out of the middle. Presume that there are people crossing in the dark up ahead. Don't rely on blinkers or tail lights or following the speed limit.

Three specific things that you should be aware of: many, many multilane roads narrow, and the sign will say "Ceda el Paso". You really don't have any rights at this point so don't meekly merge into faster traffic. Come to a stop if you have to. This calls for advance planning, and getting into the left lane sooner. Don't wait until you see the signs.

Some two-lane highways will switch to four lane at major intersections with on- and off-ramps. Trucks and slow vehicles will not pull into the slow lanes, and it's infuriating if you're used to "slower traffic merge right". In this case, however, it seems entirely OK to pass on the right and keep moving. Don't ever expect a slow vehicle to pull over to let you pass.

Second, some Tico drivers drive extremely slowly and will not, under any circumstances, pull over the let you by. You must pass them which, since they are driving 20 miles per hour, is not difficult. But your high beams, horn, and gestures won't do a damned thing. It's both sweet and infuriating. Don't fight it: pass when safe.

Finally, the roads are reasonably good between the airport and our place, but at night they are very dark and lack lines on the road (except at Jaco which is a Christmas tree by comparison. You need to use your high beams to see any appreciable distance down the road. You're going to dim them like you do in Canada and the U.S., but this will happen every 15 seconds. It's more akin to driving in a cave than driving in the open air. You can do it, but you'll only find lit roadways in cities and at some intersections.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Activities Near Dominical

Activities are generally half day or full day, and can be booked at many places in Dominical, including through Neil Harding, our property manager. Many are free if you're willing to do some driving or hiking on your own. Here are some of our favorites.
Nayuca Waterfall. Best day trip ever.
Nayuca Waterfalls and Horseback Ride. A wonderful family will take you on a gorgeous horseback ride to the family home for a delicious breakfast, followed by a trip to a waterfall and swimming hole. On the return you’ll have lunch at the same home. Takes about 5 hours, cost is about $50 per person.
Corcovado Ranger Station and Boat Ride. This takes an entire days and consists of a drive to Sierpe, about an hour south, and then a boat ride out the Rio Sierpe, through the surf, and down the coast to the Corcovado Ranger Station. This is one of the most bio diverse areas in the world, and is a must for birders, monkey seekers, and naturalists of all types. Breakfast and lunch are provided, plus transportation and the boat ride. About $70pp.
Bug on Rio Sierpe. No extra charge!
You can also drive to Sierpe and rent a boat and a guide for a two-hour trip on the river. Very pleasant mangrove swamp with bats, birds, cayman, and other creatures. About $25pp.
Another alternative is to go to Isla CaƱo instead of Corcovado. This is an island off the mouth of the Rio Sierpe with good snorkeling and hiking. About $70pp.
Zip Lining at Hacienda Baru. This is north on La Costanera (The Coast Highway) from Dominical about 5km. Fun zip lining in the jungle with naturalists. Safe, exciting, and reasonably priced. $25pp

Surfing in Dominical. Many, perhaps most, people visit Dominical for the surf. Depending on the tide and swell, you can have surf that's great for anyone from beginners to experts, and it's extremely accessible by just paddling out from the beach. It can also be a little overwhelming, so know the conditions and consider taking lessons from one of the many excellent surf schools and surf camps in town. We like Costa Rica Surf Camp, but others are very good as well.
River Rafting. We’ve now done this on two rivers in the area: Rio Guabo is narrow and in a narrow canyon while Rio Savegre is quite large and about half way between Dominical and Quepos. Either is loads of fun. The guides provide the requisite helmets, paddles, and safety instruction. A fresh fruit lunch is served along the way. We generally book at Dominical Surf Adventures, on the left as you enter town. Ask for Henry. $80-100pp.

The gorgeous swimming hole on the river that
passes through Dominicalito. 
Swimming Hole in Dominicalito. This is a lovely, quiet swimming hole on the river that passes through Dominicalito, about half a kilometer south of the homes. You have to know what to look for, but it's a short hike up the Dominicalito road and off to the right. Ask a local for directions.

Secret Swimming Hole with Waterfall: If you're really into bouldering and exotic locations, we have a secret waterfall hike that we love, and it's virtually unknown to tourists. We won't tell you where it is until you book with us, to keep the traffic down, but it's worth it. Gorgeous swimming and diving with total privacy.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. This is the big draw in the Quepos area, and when we visited the park in 1992, it was very sleepy and quiet. On a recent visit, the touristy shops have now lined the park entrance and there is a $10pp charge to walk into the park. It’s still probably worth it, but it’s lost some of its appeal.
Sportfishing. There are a few smaller sportfishing boats available to charter in Dominicalito. We haven’t tried it yet, but the fishing is supposed to be great in Quepos and we presume it’s good in Dominical as well.
Disco Nights. If you’re interested in partying and dancing, there is generally one place in town each night that hosts a late night disco. Roca Verde, for example, has disco night on Saturdays. Maracatu, Patron's, and Coco also host alternate evenings. Like many Latin nocturnal activities, the party doesn’t really get going until after midnight.

Kayaking. There's both sea kayaking and river/estuary kayaking available in the area. An easy choice is to go just north of Hacienda Baru with a local Dominical outfitter and  explore the mangroves. Very reasonably priced.

Restaurants in the Dominical Area

Don’t let the $$$ designations throw you off: virtually every restaurant on this list is a great value, but some are a little pricier than others. You won’t better food for the money than at Exotica. About $30 per person with wine.
Coconut Spice: excellent Thai food along the river. $$$
Rum Bar: good pizza and drinks. $$
Maracatu: inexpensive vegetarian food for lunch and dinner. $$
Tortilla Flats: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Surfer hangout, but the food is excellent and cheap. Try their Mahi either way, or Casado, which is kind of the CR National meal. $
Confusione: Michael and his wife Viviana run a nice tapas restaurant and 20 room hotel (Domilocos). Off the beaten track, but excellent food and Michael is a great friend. $$
Villas Rio Mar: up the Rio Baru about 1km, part of the resort at which we stayed originally. The rooms, meals, and service are very nice, and we enjoy going there for an afternoon swim in their pool with a swim-up bar. Full bar and good menu. $$$
Roca Verde: great bar and food. They have a disco on Saturday night (which you will hear if you stay at Caballitos del Mar). Mike is the owner, and it’s both good food and reasonably priced. $$
La Parcela: fantastic location, especially at sunset or for lunch. South of our home by about 1.5 km, just south of Dominicalito. Seafood and other entrees. $$$
Yes, it's Exotica, with their avocado pineapple salad. 
Exotica: our favorite place, run by Lucy and Bernard, transplanted French-Canadians. Excellent food, full bar, reasonable prices, although it’s exactly 30 minutes south of the homes. Drive south, past Uvita, and look for Playa Ventanas (small beach sign on right.) Continue to Ojochal, turn left off the highway. Continue straight across a small concrete bridge. Turn left after the bridge and drive about 1km on a dirt road. Continue until you see the restaurant sign. Reservations recommended. Well worth the drive. +(506) 2786-5050 $$$

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The "Standard" Costa Rican Vacation

I am not sure that there is such a thing as a "standard" Costa Rican vacation, but there are commonly-repeated themes that could serve as a template for vacations. We first visited Costa Rica in 1992, with 3 1/2 year old Sandy and a very pregnant Susan. That original trip was wonderful, and made us want to come back to Costa Rica again and again, and it led to our home building project in Dominical 14 years later. The "standard" vacation template that we followed still works in 2016.

Step One: Arrive in San Jose (actually Alejuela)
Indoor pool at the Don Carlos
As described in the "Getting There" blog entry, it's easy to get to Costa Rica using any of about a half dozen airlines from either Europe or the United States. Juan Santamaria Airport is efficient, cordial, and while constantly under construction, it's very clean and modern. Since you generally arrive in the evening, take a cab to your hotel. Don't worry about being taken advantage of: we find the taxi drivers to be honest and eager to please. The Marriott Hotel is among the nicest, but we also enjoy some of the smaller hotels in the surrounding areas, like the highly rated Studio Hotel in Santa Ana, which offers nice rooms and they avoid the frantic pace (and noise) of the city. Not all areas of San Jose are tourist friendly, so get some advice before striking out on foot to find a restaurant. You won't spend too much time in San Jose anyway, since it only serves as a base for your adventures.

Step Two: Out and Back to San Jose
This might be a tremendous understatement, but there are about 25 different things to do in Costa Rica. That's it. Volcanoes, rain forest, beaches, turtles, monkeys, cloud forests, surfing, fishing, kayaking, and a few others. Each of these pursuits can be wrapped up in a 2-4 day expedition, that can be accessed from San Jose. There are dozens of quality tour operators who will:

1. Pick you up at the hotel in the morning in a small tourist bus.
2. Drive you safely around town while picking up like-minded tourists.
3. Deliver you to some point of interest (boat, resort, trail) so that you can start your adventure.
4. Insure that you're greeted at the resort/park, and that you're set up for a few days.
5. Your time at the resort/park is generally prepaid so your meals are taken care of, and many minor expeditions are included. Meals are communal (which is one of the great treats) since you can meet interesting people from around the world.
6. The tour operator will arrange for your flight/boat ride/bus ride back to San Jose.
7. Spend the night, and strike out for Expedition #2 the next morning.

The only question is which expedition you choose, and that's where the 25 different choices come in. While we have been to Costa Rica about 20 times, we have only been on a dozen or so expeditions, but we've also spoken with hundreds of tourists who have tried virtually all the rest. We recommend finding a travel agent who's familiar with Costa Rica, like we did in 1992, because they can put together an efficient itinerary that works within your budget.

Step Three: Which Expeditions?
Whether you call them tours, or expeditions, or excursions, they are generally wonderful, relatively good values, and professionally staffed. Apparently tour guides in Costa Rica are required to take lots of training in biology (and other sciences) and tourism, and we have found the guides to be informed and pleasant. Here's a tiny sample of what we have enjoyed doing:


Pool at Mawamba Lodge at night
Sandy and Natty on the canal
This is the coastal area in the northeast corner of the country which is famous for the sea turtles that lay their eggs on the beaches. The geography is much different than the rest of the country, with a low jungly coastal plain leading to the always-rough Caribbean Sea. No matter: although you'll take a small powerboat to get to Tortuguero, there's a canal that runs parallel to the sea which is extremely calm and which runs through some beautiful jungle areas. We've always stayed at the Mawamba Lodge, but we've heard good reports about the other lodges in the area. Great for naturalists and beachcombers. We recommend either two or three nights.

Volcan Irazu

Gorgeous tree frog in the jungle
This is probably the most accessible volcano from the San Jose/Cartago areas. It makes a great day trip, and gives travelers a good perspective of the San Jose/Cartago area. The volcano is dormant presently, and has a turquoise lake in the crater. On the way back from the top of the volcano, many tours stop by a Botanical Garden Lankester, which has hundreds of Costa Rican species accessible by pleasant walking trails.

Siquirres to Guapiles (Province of Limon)

On our trip in 1992, we ended up in a Rain Forest lodge outside of Siquirres which was marvelous, but we'll be darned if we can find the name of the lodge. It was the rainy season, and for a few days we shared a 20 room resort with another couple. It was perched on the banks of a gorgeous river which flowed to the Caribbean Sea, and we ended up horseback riding, river exploring, and enjoying three beautifully prepared meals a day for about $100 per day for the three of us. Obviously times have changed, but we find that Costa Rica is full of quality eco-lodges that are family-friendly and very reasonably priced.

Volcan Arenal

OK, we admit it, it took us many years before we actually reached Arenal, since our villas in the south are about 4 hours away by the coastal highway. In the last few years, we've made "day trips" to Arenal, leaving from Dominical, then ending up in Santa Ana prior to departure. It's a wonderful, breathing, living piece of geography, surrounded by nice resorts and activities. We don't claim to be experts, so buy a guide book or search online.

We're hoping to stay at the Tree Houses when we can fit it in our schedule, based on the very positive reviews we've read and the very concept of building rooms up in trees. Volcan Arenal is very popular, since it's an active volcano and not many of us will get a chance to stay at a resort with a volcano spewing lava in close proximity. My parents visited Arenal based on our recommendation in 1995, and flat out loved it.

Step Four: Repeat as Needed
For our original trip to Costa Rica, we had 16 days, and ended up spending three in Tortuguero, three in the Province of Limon rain forest, and seven days in Quepos. With days in between for recovering, we used our time reasonably wisely, but frankly, we felt we had too much down-time in San Jose and not enough time seeing the sights. We concluded that it would be better to return from an excursion in the afternoon, and be packed and ready to go on the next one the following day.

We should also point out that we did not rent a car the first time, and we now always rent a car. Sure: it depends. Allowing a tour operator to take you to and fro is actually a great luxury, and there's no insurance, parking, vandalism, or the other issues that come with having a car. But if you want to explore on your own, we find the driving to be relatively safe, polite, and medium-easy to navigate. You can even rent a Garmin nuvi at various rental car agencies, although we cannot vouch for the map accuracy!