Step One: Arrive in San Jose (actually Alejuela)
|Indoor pool at the Don Carlos in downtown San Jose.|
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|
|Gorgeous tree frog in the jungle|
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.
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!