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 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 on the "Getting There" page, 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!

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